Fever Now, the whole thing!
I jogged down the street, sneakers squeaking as I turn down the dirty New York sidewalk that was fresh with rain. I concentrate on the door to my apartment building, the stoop sticking out onto the sidewalk, the cement smudged with smoke stains and bird droppings. I jog up the stairs to the stoop, passing the first floor doors and sliding my hand onto the guardrail as I climbed the stairs to the third floor. I walk quietly passed the other residents doors, I had taken longer on my run, and I was late for dinner again.
I opened the door to a semi-dark room. The only light on was the one in the kitchen. I walked down the narrow hallway to the kitchen in the back of the small apartment I shared with my mother and sister Denise.
I walked into the kitchen to see my mom sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair from the kitchen table. She had a phonebook out and was flipping through pages quickly.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Oh, hey Ang.” She said, and continued flipping through the book. I sat down in a kitchen chair beside her, and watched her inspect the names at the tops of the pages.
“Um, Mom? What are you doing?” I asked, as she passed a page in the middle of the J section.
“I’m looking for a good pizza parlor. I don’t feel like cooking tonight. I have a migraine.”
“Alright.” I said, and took the book gently from her, flipping to the yellow pages and quickly scanning the pages for “pizza”. “You go ahead and rest. I’ll get the pizza.” I told her. She massaged her forehead and then nodded and headed toward the living room, flicking off all the lights as she went. I dialed the Dominos number and fished through my pocket for some money. Finding none, I frowned, and then searched my mom’s wallet, coming up with a twenty and leaving it on the counter for pizza.
“Angela?” called Denise from our bedroom. We shared the larger of the two bedrooms, and mom had stuffed it with a bunk bed and a dresser. We had a large bulletin board on one wall covered in pictures and newspaper articles we’d liked.
“Yeah?” I called from the kitchen, pulling out my backpack from the closet and taking out my homework.
“Could you get me some Advil? And a glass of water? I have a major headache.” She moaned. I nodded, and grabbed a couple Advil tablets and filled a glass with water from the tap. I brought it into our room, where Denise was lying, eyes closed in the dark, rubbing her forehead.
“Here you go.” I said, and left the Advil and glass on the dresser. She moaned, and sat up, opening her eyes.
“Ugh, I have a headache like you wouldn’t believe.” She growled, and stood, steadying herself on the top bunk railing and then heading for the Advil. She popped in the Advil and took a swig of the water, grumbled, and then returned to her bed on the bottom bunk.
Denise was a year older than me, a freshmen in high school. She had a backpack stuffed full in the corner, and pictures of her in her eighth grade year with her three best friends April, Gretchen, and Amanda. I admired the faces as they rode roller coasters, screaming as the camera snapped photos of them with mouths forming a round O. They were eating Slushies and hotdogs at basketball games and posing in feathery boas and masks from Halloween.
“I’m going to sleep.” Denise stated, and turned in the bed onto her side. “Could you bring me some ice?” she asked. I nodded, and headed to the kitchen, envious of Denise’s many friends and good looks. I had inherited mousy brown hair and a over-sized brown eyes that made me look like a lemur. She had blonde curls, soft blue eyes that fit her face, and a button nose like the ones in story books. I loved my sister, but hated her for her perfection and beauty.
“She’s better than you. People love her more than you, and you’ll always be second best to her.” I told myself, grabbing and ice pack from the freezer and letting it soften a bit on the counter.
After delivering Denise’s ice pack I sunk onto the sofa in the living room. My mother had evacuated and gone into her room, and I had the small, but cozy apartment to myself. The doorbell rang, and I ran to the door with the twenty dollar bill in hand.
But it wasn’t the pizza man. It was our neighbor, Ms. Frazz. She was an older woman, in her mid sixties, and she was always giving us sugar or eggs when we needed them to make cakes. My mother was a hard worker, but always seemed to forget something at the grocery store each week. Usually it was eggs, or sometimes even bread. Ms. Frazz always lent us what we needed, and we would help her with chores around her apartment in payment.
“I can’t come help this evening, Ms. Frazz...” I began, about to explain that I had homework and Denise and my mother needed caring for, but she stopped me.
“No, no. I don’t need your help. I need to talk with your mother for just a second.” She said, her voice soft and sweet like the smell of her cakes and cookies that she made on Saturdays.
“She’s asleep. She had a headache.” I explained.
“Ah. That’s what I need to talk about. I was watching the news and wanted to talk to her about the illness going around. They say it may be quite serious.”
“Who’s they?” I asked her, “What illness?”
“Just, tell you mother I came by, would you darling?” she asked, ignoring my questions. I nodded, and closed the door. Confused, I returned to the living room to watch Degrassi. But I wasn’t thinking about the television at all, I was thinking about Ms. Frazz and her odd talk of illnesses and “they”.
The doorbell rang again, but this time when I dashed to the door, it was the pizza man. I handed him the twenty, received my change, and in my haste, forgot his tip. I left the pizza uneaten on the counter. I returned to the TV, and a few hours later, fell asleep on the couch.
I woke up at eight-thirty, late for school. I had a crick in my neck, and sunlight streamed in on the coffee table where my glass of water sat half-full next to a notebook flipped to a To Do List. I had a short list, including talk to Ms. Frazz ASAP, and ask Mom about illness.
“Ugh.” I growled, and turned over. I saw Mom’s car in the driveway, obviously she was still sick, and I rolled off the couch, collecting my cup and notebook and returning to my room. It was dark, the shades were pulled, and Denise lay with the sheets twisted about her, sweating, feverish. I frowned, and took the ice pack from the night and grabbed another one from the freezer to replace it. I toweled off her forehead, and then left her alone.
I walked into my mom’s room casually, seeing her in a similar state, sweating from a high fever and twisted in among sheets and comforters. We were out of ice packs so I mopped her forehead and neck and came back with a back of ice wrapped in a paper towel. I saw my homework lying out on the kitchen table, incorrect answers scribbled hastily on the paper, and sighed.
I wasn’t going to school.
Denise slept all day. I spent my day finishing up my homework, answering the questions as correctly as I could, and going to check on Denise and my mother, mopping their foreheads and necks with towels and untangling them from sheets and comforters. I left them glasses of water and Advil, but they never were conscious enough to take them.
After a few hours of that, I finished my homework, and headed into the living room to watch the news. Flipping through channels and channels of garbage, I finally found a channel that played only news. They were in the middle of report on a mysterious illness that was striking, not only New York, not only the nation, but the world. Asians were contracting the same sickness as the Americans, and the Mexicans the same as the Arabs. I watched for a little, and then decided to check the internet. I took a quick peek in on Denise and my mother, found them asleep, and still feverish, and left a note on the counter saying I was gone to lunch, though there was still an uneaten pizza on the kitchen table.
I walked through the nearly empty streets of New York, heading toward the cafe where I ate lunch on weekends when I was home alone, or with Denise. I turned down 31st Street, took a left at the corner store, and made my way toward the empty cafe at the end of the road.
The tables were neat and empty and there was only one waitress, a girl named Cassandra, or Cassie. I didn’t know her as well as the others, and she was alone in the small coffee bar.
“Good morning.” She said. I smiled, and ordered a cappuccino and a biscotti, and then headed toward the computer supplied in the back. I clicked and headed to yahoo.com to check the news. It was bright and big on the home page, MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS AT LARGE!! I scrolled down to check out the article at the bottom.
This morning doctors were flooded with calls from around the world. The cause of the calls was not the regular, nose bleeds and stomach aches, but a mysterious fever that came after a person had a horribly pounding headache. A doctor from the University of Arizona comments, “We had no idea what to say. People called asking about headaches. We suggested Advil, but the painkiller was not working on this pounding headache. The next day calls came in from relatives of the same people calling about horrible fevers.”
Hospitals around the world are accepting people with fevers above 105 degrees. These patients are under special care. No one has decided the cause of the illness, or what the final effects of it are. “It may just be a bug,” one physician, Dr. Janice Saint Pierre, comments, “but it is a bad one at that. Professionals around the world are trying to uncover the cause and cure of the illness that has suddenly swept the country.”
When asked, Saint Pierre says she is not worried. “We are quite sure this will blow away in a couple weeks at the most. We have no deaths from the illness, and those who are sick are not getting worse, but staying the same. We are sure we will soon find the cure.”
Until then, doctors suggest staying inside and not nearing people who are sick. Check all that are sick into the nearest hospital as soon as possible, and make sure to keep up regular health habits. Some suggest brushing teeth more than twice a day and some go extreme and suggest medical masks. We will keep you posted on any more news.
I finished reading the article, and gobbled up my biscotti. I hadn’t taken Mom’s temperature, or Denise’s! What if they were dying right now, as I sipped up a cappuccino and read articles on the computer. What if they were already dead? I left the computer on yahoo.com and dashed out the door, leaving my cappuccino on the table along with my half eaten biscotti on a white paper napkin beside it.
I ran through familiar streets, faster than my normal jogging pace, but slower than a sprint. I had three blocks, and couldn’t make it at a sprint if I tried my hardest. I ran through the empty streets. So many people had heard, so many people before me. I played the horrible scene in my head. I walk into the apartment, shouting, but there’s no answer. I rush into the nearest bedroom, my mothers, to find her tangled in sheets, but cold. Her hands are stiff against her waist, and her eyes shut, pain written on her face. I collapse by her bedside, sobbing into my hands.
The sight of my stoop, still smoke stained and brown with dirt and grime. I dash up the stairs and into my room, which I had mistakenly left unlocked. “Mom! Denise!” I shout, running down the hall to my mother’s room. She was rubbing her eyes, red in the face, eyes bloodshot. “Mom!” I cried, and hugged her close. She smiled, and then asked wearily,
“How long was I out?” her voice was gravelly, but soft, and steadying. I shook my head, not very long, and let her drink the water I’d left on her nightstand. I went less hastily into Denise’s room to find her pinning up pictures on the bulletin board.
“There you are!” she said, smiling. “I thought you’d abandoned us sick people.” I wanted to smile, but instead my eyes shone with tears.
“What?” she asked me, crossing the room, leaving pictures on the table as she went; she swept me up into a hug.
“Denise, there’s a sickness coming. People are in hospitals, they’re really sick. I was just afraid...” I began.
“We’re fine, don’t worry. Whatever it was we had went away just like that!” she said, and snapping her fingers. I smiled, and she let me go. When I came back out Mom was sitting on the couch, eating the pizza that I’d left out from the night before.
“Hey sweetie, did you see this news? Some extreme illness going around.” She said, and flipped through the channels.
“Yeah, I went on Yahoo and checked it out. Nobody’s died or anything yet, and I’m sure since you and Denise recovered quickly it was just a quick spurt of the stomach bug.” I stated.
“I wasn’t worried.” She smiled, and patted the seat beside her. I sat down, and she flipped through the channels, settling on a re-run of The Hills. We watched and laughed at the young adults that played on the sad excuse for a reality TV show.
They were fine. Everything was fine. Nothing to worry about. I told myself, slouching against the back of the couch with a smile. Nothing to worry about at all.
“Mom?” I called. Sun streamed through my window through the thin blinds, and I rubbed my eyes, and smiled. The week before I’d read a newspaper article on Yahoo about how people were checking out of hospitals, fevers diminished and headaches disappeared.
“Mom!” I called. I headed toward her room at the end of the hall, knocking on the door. She should have been at work by now, so when nobody answered I opened the door and walked in.
On the bed lay my mother, sweating profusely through the sheets and her thin summer pajamas. Her hand was thrown over her head, her other arm wrapped tightly around her stomach.
“Mom!” I cried, rushing to her bedside and untangling her from the sheets. She stirred, and looked at me through slits of bloodshot eyes.
“Jacob? Jacob?” she asked me. I shook my head. Who was Jacob? What was she talking about?
“Mom, it’s me, Angela. It’s me! I’m right here.” I told her, shaking her. She threw her arms over her face and cried.
“No. Jacob. Don’t go! Don’t go Jacob!” she called. I looked at her and shook my head again. I shook her, and she pushed me away. “Stop it! Jacob, leave me alone!”
“Mom! It’s me! It’s me Angela. I’m your daughter!” I cried, close to tears. I laid my head on her stomach, and she pushed me away. “Leave me alone!” she shouted. I looked at her, and wanted so much to scream. I wanted to scream at her, and I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell her that she would be alright. She would be fine.
I turned and looked a Denise standing in the doorway. She was frowning, looking at Mom, and then to me. I looked at her, my mouth dropping into a frown, and tears coming to my eyes. “Oh Ang!” she said, and ran to me, hugging me close, and whispering comforting words I couldn’t hear in my ear. I just stared, tears running down my face, as my mother twitched and turned, sweating and tangling herself in sheets.
That night, while Mom twisted and writhed in her bed, calling for Jacob, we watched the news for more information on the illness spreading around the world. After the weather a man in a plain gray suit came into view, standing in front of the white washed and sterile walls of a hospital.
“Good evening.” He said; his voice deep, “Today at countless hospitals many people were taken back in with fevers and severe stomach and headaches. Severe cases of hallucination were also reported in some hospitals, but only in men and women age forty and above.
“I’ve come to the Washington University Hospital to find out more on the disease spreading throughout the world.” The news anchorman stated, turning to a man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope looped around his neck. “Doctor Von Tussle?”
“Good evening. Today there were three reported cases of patients with extremely severe hallucinations and many with high fevers and stomach aches. I believe this to be another effect of the disease that many around the world are acquiring.”
“Dr. Von Tussle have there been any deaths because of this disease?”
“Unfortunately, yes. After a close examination of those who’ve died of this disease we believe that the disease has something to do with the flow of blood to the brain. My colleagues and I are working now to find a possible cure, put until then we suggest all those with the illness to check into hospitals, immediately.”
I grabbed the remote and flicked off the TV, cradling my head in my hands.
“Angela, I’m sure Mom will be fine. She’ll be alright, they’ll find a cure.” Denise said, handing me her coffee cup. I ignored her comforting hand on my shoulder.
“What if they don’t?” I asked her.
“Don’t be negative, Angela.” She said sternly. I looked at her, angry, and stood up.
“Sometimes you can’t be positive, Denise. Sometimes everything is going wrong, and you just can’t smile and say, ‘everything will be alright’!” I shouted at her.
“Ang!” she called. I just ran down the hallway and slammed the door. “Angela! Angela open the door!” she yelled through the hollow wood. I threw myself onto the bed and cried.
I woke up early to the blaring of my alarm. 6:30. I smacked the clock, wanting to send it flying across the room, far away from me, so I could just sleep, and keep dreaming. So I wouldn’t have to wake up to my real life. Not right now. The house was quiet. Denise was already in the shower, I could hear the water running in our cramped bathroom that was last painted in the 1970’s. Mom was at work, and the thought of her worried me. I couldn’t believe that it was just two days ago that I came into her bedroom to find her still and silent. I had shaken her and shaken her until she nearly fell off the bed, but still she didn’t move. I thought of everything that had gone wrong in the past month, how everything had changed. She and Denise had been sick off and on, her more frequently and more severely than Denise though. She would have night terrors and hallucinations about Jacob and Robert and Rosalina. I wondered who these people were, but when she was well again I didn’t mention the disease. Nobody did.
I heard the water in the shower die down, and then stop completely. The door clicked open and Denise emerged in a cream-colored towel set, her hair wrapped up in a knot on the top of her head. She pointed a thumb at the door, I nodded. This was normal. Everything was normal again.
But no. It wasn’t a bad dream that I could wake up from. I had school, and Denise had school, and Mom was already at work. I grabbed a towel from the closet and padded into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I turned the knob on the shower and water began to spout into the white porcelain box. I stepped in, braving the chilly water, and let the massaging drops wash my pain away.
But then my mind returned to the real world. What if Denise got sick at school while I was gone. Who would take care of her? Or Mom? What about Mom? She could collapse at her desk, head on the key board, burning up with fever and yelling out at Jacob, or Rosalina, or Robert. Who would take of her, as she screamed and convulsed in her office?
I flicked off the shower water and dried myself quickly, forgetting about shampoo and conditioner and soap. I tied my hair up in a bun and wrapped the towel around me in record time, then jogged out the door and down the hallway, and then finally into my room.
Denise was in the kitchen pouring milk into bowls of Cheerios. I changed into jeans and white tank top, simple; leaving my room to collect my bowl of cereal and eat that in silence beside the sister I could lose at any moment, any second, of any day. I would go to school and then run back, heavy backpack full of homework and books rattling on my shoulders, hoping that when I came back I would be alone. It was a strange hope, but when I got home that evening, the silence of that apartment was so nurturing, telling me that there was hope. They would find the cure, figure it out. They would.
I unlocked the door to my apartment at 3:20, a little earlier that usual, and stepping into the dark and cramped little front room. I left my backpack by the front door, kicked off my shoes and headed for the phone in the small living room, where the answering machine was beeping. Nervously, I clicked the play button.
“You have 1 new messages. First message, Monday, 12:38 P.M.” said the monotonous voice of the answering machine. I listened intently. “Good afternoon, this Michael Morgan of New York dentistry, calling to remind you of your appointment on Thursday, September 4, 2007...” I sighed, hit the delete button. The woman’s voice informed me that I had no new messages.
Calm down, Angela. Calm down.
My heart slowed, and I collapsed onto the couch, flicking on the TV and flipping through channels of football and a commercials and stopped at Vh1 to watch music videos.
A few minutes later the phone rang. I picked it up, clicking the television on mute as I hit the talk button. “Hello?”
“Hello, is this Angela Palmer?” asked a man I had never heard before.
“Yes. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Angela, this is Dr. Jeffrey Ritor. I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your mother was taken into the hospital today. She has a severe case of the disease we’re calling the Ending Plague. We need you to get here as soon as possible.”
I was silent.
“Angela? Are you there?” asked the doctor.
“Yes. I’ll be right there.” I said, and hung up the phone. I fished the money for a bus fare out of my Denise’s purse and headed outside, not bothering to lock the door. It didn’t matter anyway. Not anymore.
I heard the door click, and Denise walked in, arm in arm with my mother. She had aged ten years in that hospital bed, eating the mush they call food. Her hair was graying from the stress and pain this plague was putting her through, and there were soft wrinkle lines beside her eyes and the edges of her lips.
“She’s here.” Denise whispered, helping our mother into the living room as if she were seventy, not forty. I looked at her, as she lay there, still and silent on the couch. “Aren’t you going to say anything, Angela?” asked Denise, as if she were my mother. But no, she wasn’t. My mother was the figure that looked so much older than she really was, the woman that was wasting away on the sofa. The woman I once knew. Not anymore.
“There’s nothing to say.” I told her coldly. She looked at me, not in shock, but despair. I turned my back, and left the room.
A few hours later, as I sat amidst my homework, just staring at the questions that were so simple and easy to answer, just an easy yes or no, true or false, a short little sentence. Not like the questions now, in my real life, here. The door clicked open, and Denise stepped in. She was pale and had bags under her usually bright eyes.
“Angela, we need to talk.” She stated.
“I’m doing my homework.” I told her, in the same cold tone I had before. I knew that I shouldn’t be like this, be so cold and unfeeling. I knew that Denise was trying so hard to make everything seem normal. She was trying so hard, and it just wasn’t good enough.
“Angela, I’m trying. I’m trying as hard as I can to make everything better. Mom will recover, don’t worry. And I’ll get better. I know I will. I haven’t had an outbreak in a few days.” Denise said, looking me in the eye.
I was silent, scribbling down simple answers on my paper, trying to ignore the speech I knew was coming.
“Angela?” she asked. “Do you have anything to say? Why are you so angry at me?” she asked me.
“I’m doing my homework.” I said again. Cold. Harsh.
Denise’s face turned bright red, and she grabbed my pencil from my hand and snapped it right in front of my face, sliding my books off the table and into a heap on the already crowded floor. I turned to her.
“Denise, I’m not angry at you! I’m not angry at anyone. I’m just sick of everything, sick of my life, everything that’s gone wrong! So much has happened that makes me regret everything I’ve ever done, and so much is happening right now that make me want to scream and end it all! I hate your optimism, how you think that people will figure it out. We’ll all figure it out, and everything will be better. Everything will be the same!” I screamed in her face, my face so close to hers that I could see the pain sink into her eyes, her pupils dark, as she tried to block me out, but couldn’t. “Nothing is going to change for us!” I said, lowering my voice. “And nothing will ever be the same.”
“I tried and tried for you. I tried my hardest, and it still isn’t good enough. What more do you want from me, Angela. I don’t have anything left to give.” She said, calmly, slowly. She left the room, clicking to door behind her. I heard her break into tears in the hallway, and I wanted everything to go out and make her feel better, apologize and say that I knew that it would all be fine.
But I stayed in my seat. After a few minutes I heard footsteps pass the door, and then go faintly down to the living room, where our mother still slept. But no, she wasn’t our mother. Not anymore. She was a nobody, a nothing, a trace of life that just wasn’t the same as a human. She was just a shadow of our mother. Not the real thing at all.
I woke to silence. It was a Thursday, but my alarm hadn’t been set and it was probably around nine. I figured Mom was still asleep, either in her room or sprawled along the couch, the television flicked to a soap opera, as if we didn’t have enough drama already. Denise was probably in school, studying and preparing for college that was only a few years away. We were counting on a scholarship, Mom didn’t have enough money to send us both to college and if one of us was going to get a scholarship, it was Denise.
I opened the door to a black hallway. I flicked on the lights as I walked along, deciding that we were all going to die anyway, why conserve electricity. I had no money for a bus fare, and I wasn’t about to walk, so I stayed in my pajamas and sat down in the comfortable recliner, flipping through TV channels for something to watch.
That was when I heard the faint groan coming from down the hallway. I sat up straight, ears alert, ready for anything. Everything. I stood, cautiously, and walked down the hall. The groan had come from my mother’s room, I thought, but she was in the living room unconscious on the couch. Who was it then? I pushed open the door a crack, and there on the floor was Denise, wrapped in a blanket, sweating profusely through the clothes she’d worn yesterday.
“Denise?” I asked. She didn’t look up, only stared blankly at the wall. She grunted as I shook her, trying to remove the blanket so she would stop sweating. But she held on tight to the soft wool cover, not tugging it back, but just holding fast to the cloth.
“Denise. Come on, get up and let me see the blanket!” I said. She just stared, uncomprehending, at the wall. “Come on Denise! Talk to me! I’m sorry! I really am!” I cried, almost screaming at her now. She was still silent. Unknowing. Blank.
“Denise!” I screamed, tugging the blanket away from her with a sharp pull. She fell against the bed, cracking her head on the steel frame, and then falling to the floor. I collapsed into a heap on top of her, crying and sobbing as she lay there, still staring. She was cold, but sweating, and I could feel the palms of her hands sweating through the fabric. But when I felt her arms, she was cold, frigidly cold.
“You’re supposed to be better! You’re supposed to take care of me, and take care of Mom! Everything was supposed to be perfect again!” I screamed at her, wanted to beat her with the blanket and the pillows, anything. Wanting to smack the sense back into her. But I stayed where I was, leaning against the sister I was losing just like I lost my mother.
I called and ambulance later that night, too tired and too broke to afford a bus toll for two sick family members and myself. I heard the ambulance, rushing down the street. I was in no hurry. They took my mother and sister away on canvas stretchers that smelled too clean, sterile, like a hospital. I stepped into the ambulance and was carted away with my sister and mother, my mother trying to thrust her way out, trying to untangle herself from the restraints, and Denise just laying there, silent, still. But breathing.
“These are two extreme cases. Have you come down with the fever yet?” asked the ambulance attendant. He looked tired, like he too had had the fever not long ago.
“No. I haven’t.” I said, simple.
“I just recovered from a nasty bout. Almost had to bring myself to the hospital.” He meant it to be a joke, but the reality of the situation had sunk in too far. We both just stood there, not laughing, not talking.
When we arrived at the hospital it smelled sterile, almost sterile enough to make you sick. It smelled like cleaning fluid and hospital food that was really more like mush, and a masked aroma of the sick and dying. It made me want to take my family and run out. But, unfortunately, pushing two stretchers a once was not one of my talents.
“Right this way. We’ll take them into intensive care.” A woman at a desk said, letting them out of stretchers and into wheelchairs. My mother calmed down and fell asleep, my sister did nothing. I was scared. I pushed Denise down a white hallway in a cheap black canvas wheel chair. I followed the woman who was carting my mother around into a room with two open beds. I helped her carefully place each of my two family members in the beds, and then she left.
I was alone.
“Excuse me?” a voice, foreign to me, and small. “Miss? Are you awake?” I rubbed my eyes, lifting my aching neck and shoulders into a normal sitting position in the small white plastic chair I’d fallen asleep in late last night. Before me stood a small girl with straight black hair and chocolate colored eyes. She was skinny, too skinny, and her skin was stretched tight over her bones in her cheeks, making her look almost skeletal.
“Yes?” I mumbled, clearing the sleep from my throat and eyes, and trying to stay attentive, though my body wanted to collapse back into sleep.
“I was wondering if you knew where room C12 was? I lost my way.” She said. She was so sweet sounding, and so frail and helpless looking. I softened, standing up and taking her hand.
“I’ll help you find a nurse.” I said.
“You can stand?” she asked. She was shocked, her eyes were saucers on her tiny face.
“Yes...” I began.
“You don’t have the fever?” she asked. She was so scared, and she thrust her hand back from my grasp. “I... I’m sorry to bother you! I’ll just leave...” she said, turning and using all her strength to catapult herself out the door. I watched her leave in wonder. Did everyone here have the fever?
A nurse passed by the door hours later, tired looking, pushing along a small black cart filled with plates of the mush they call food to give patients. My stomach growled angrily, I hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours. I called out to the nurse, and she turned, menacing black bags underneath kind blue eyes. She came to the door.
“You forgot our room.” I said, pointing to my mother and sister, Denise still exhausted.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Just a bit tired, I suppose.” She said, stretching long spindly fingers out and handing me a plate and a pill, large and white. She left plates by Denise and Mom’s bed, setting them on the small plastic tables beside the mostly metal hospital cots.
“What is this pill for?” I asked her, inspecting the long and narrow white bean shaped thing, tougher than a rock and even harder to swallow.
“That’s you pill. Keeps the fever down, a bit.”
“I... I don’t have the fever.” I told her, biting down on my lip nervously. Would they kick me out? I didn’t want to leave Denise, still and silent, and my mother, still not recovered from her earlier bout, and still asleep on the white sheets. “Don’t be silly, girl. Everyone has the fever.” Said the nurse, pushing her cart out the door. I wanted to respond, but the door closed behind her, and everything was silent again.
Everyone has the fever?
I felt my mother’s forehead. She was burning hot, I tugged my hand away. She was pouring with sweat, but her eyes never opened. She was still, but for the occasional flick of her finger, as if she were deep in a dream. Denise was still, eyes open, but seemingly asleep. She had moved once since our arrival at the hospital, a flicker of her legs, as if she were imagining running.
“Keep running, Denise. Run away from all this. You don’t want to be here anymore.” I whispered, mopping her head with a towel from a shelf across the room. She didn’t stir, and I just sat there beside her, hand clutching the cloth wet with perspiration, wanting to cry, but having shed all my tears.
“Angela?” a soft whisper of a voice. I moaned, turning on the hard plastic chair. Beside me was a wash cloth and a tray of food I still hadn’t eaten, and a few days worth of the white pills I didn’t need. “Angela! Wake up!” the whisper was faint, but desperate. I turned, tugging myself up.
“Uh?” I moaned, trying to sit straight. I was exhausted, wearing the same clothes from the night I’d checked in. My hair was mussed and unwashed and my skin was thick with grime.
“Angela? Please listen. You have to leave.”
I turned to my mother, asleep, and then to Denise, eyes open, twitching with dreams. Who was it?
“Angela, just listen. You need to leave. You’ll catch the fever. You can outrun this. You can run away. Leave them behind.” The voice was soft, a whisper, but harsh, demanding.
“Who are you?” I asked, calling out in the room.
“Leave this, Angela!” the voice called, drifting away.”
“Am I hallucinating? Please, answer me!” I asked aloud. There was no answer. “Hello?”
Then, a harsh whisper, as if in my ear, right beside me.
I jumped, toppling out of the chair and onto the ground. My knees hit the hard tiles. I caught myself, my head falling between my shoulders. I cried out as my right arm hit the sharp edge of the chair, leaving a long but shallow cut from my shoulder to my elbow. I just stayed there, taking in the pain in my hands and knees, and the soft throbbing of my arm.
“Miss, are you alright?” a nurse had walked by, stopping in to check on the real fever patients, not the one that can’t convince anyone she’s healthy. “Do you need another pill?”
“No. I’m fine.” Suddenly I was angry. In her eyes I was a little girl, just a little girl that is confused and doesn’t know what to do, because she’s too young to understand the plague that’s striking her family, and maybe even herself.
“Are you sure?” she asked, a ease of kindness underneath the worn, baggy eyed women that stood before me.
“Yes.” I said, harsh, cold. Angry. I was fuming, feeling as if there were plugs in my ears holding in the steam that should come belching out at any second. Any moment.
“Alright.” She said, heading slowly away, as if she expected me to call out and apologize, ask for ‘a pill and perhaps a painkiller please?’, and pour out my heart to her, a complete stranger. No. Not me. I wasn’t about to let another person delve into my fears, into my secrets. No. Never.
“Why don’t you listen to me, Angela?” it was the voice, a whisper, harsh, and without feeling. Cold.
“Hello? Who are you?”
“Angela, leave. Leave before you can’t.”
“You’re afraid then?” the voice was taunting me. And then everything was black, pitch black. I landed in swirls of blue and white, pooling around my knees, and I looked up. I was standing in a pond, crystal clear, and before me was.... myself? A younger me, when I was five or six, standing beside Denise.
“Angela, can you see that fish? Over there? Go and catch him.” Denise said. She was demanding, the old Denise that I had never much liked when I was little. I didn’t remember this though.
“No.” I said, shifting my weight to my toes and back, rocking about on my heels in the wet grass beside the small stream.
“Angela, go!” she said, loud and severely. Her voice got shrill, and I thought of her, yelling at me when she was angry, her voice getting high and tight, on the verge of tears, as she always was when we fought.
“No! I don’t want to!” I told her, folding my arms across my chest.
“Go! What are you, chicken?” she asked, taunting me like that voice. The voice I couldn’t quite pin. It was Denise. Denise telling me to go, taunting me, her voice shrill and almost unrecognizable with the anger that was welling beneath the cool and calm surface.
“No! I’m not scared.” I said.
“Yes you are!” she clucked about like a chicken, waddling around me, and squawking at me, taunting.
“Fine!” I finally said, rolling up the cuffs to my favorite jeans, the ones with the pink sequin embroidery down the leg. The younger me waded into the pool, soon knee-deep in the cool water. I watched, as the young me bypassed the real me, caught in this dream, and finally waded up to my waist, snatching at the fish. Missing, and tumbling into the water, submerged in the cool, thick liquid, I was suddenly in the younger me’s body, floundering about, searching for air.
And then I was tugged away, back into the hard plastic chair beside the beds. It was silent, and I was afraid to speak, incase this was not the dream room, or maybe, in case it was.
Finally, I spoke.
The real room then. I moved, sliding in the chair, uncomfortable in the silence. My mother groaned in her sleep. She was sweating, and I mopped her forehead. My stomach rumbled, I gazed at the barely touched dinner from the night before. I inspected my knee, bruised black from my tumble the day before, and my hands, aching and a strange yellowy-purple. My arm was washed clean, but a thin trace of the shallow cut was left, red and long, thin, and jagged.
The door to my room was closed, but out the window it was dark. The lights in the hallway were on, I could see the fluorescent lights flicker yellow in the crack under the door. I opened the shades. It was black, but the moon was full. I hadn’t seen the moonlight in what seemed like forever.
I gazed at my sleeping family, Denise with her eyes closed, twitching with night terrors and hallucinations, and my mother, feverish and twisted in blankets, moaning to Robert, then to Jacob. She called out, but no one answered.
I’d had enough waiting around for them to be better. I was done. Done. I heard the voice, Denise’s voice, pinched with anger and fear. “Angela leave. Leave before you can’t.”
And then, I was gone. I don’t remember the hallways, or the lobby. It was just black, until I hit the cool moonlight, cold darkness. Unknown. Everything unknown and unseen. Everything about my life. Every secret. It was all hidden in this darkness.
I walked on.
The roads were empty. Debris littered the street, fast food containers blown from garbage cans that overflowed with trash. Stoplights blinked yellow, and in the distance lights flickered and died in buildings that touched the clouds. I walked along the sidewalk, although cars came as often as human faces down the vacant boulevard.
That was when I saw two men. They wore white lab coats and black pants with white sneakers scrubbed clean. They were tired looking, bags under bloodshot eyes, and they moved slowly, sweat pouring down there faces as they walked. They didn’t see me, and I wondered what they were doing, walking here this late at night.
I stopped, and watched them approach. They were slow, and I knew they had the fever, though not a very serious case. Not yet. One spotted me then, pointing a scrawny finger at me, and they started jogging toward me, making haste though I could see the pain and their labored breathing.
But when they neared me, they didn’t slow. In their eyes was greed, and a crazy out-of-touch stare. One called to me, told me to come to them. Another babbled something to soft for me to hear. They scared me, with there disheveled hair and crazed looks. I began to run away.
I could run fast, but unlike them, I wasn’t crazy, desperate for human contact. They chased me through the streets, along the empty downtown shops and into the financial department with towering skyscrapers and hospitals, law offices and small publishing companies. I was growing tired, but they didn’t stop, kept moving along, dragging themselves, about to collapse. I didn’t stop, couldn’t.
Finally, when I turned they had collapsed on the street, hands on there knees, shaking and breathing laboriously. I kept running, head turned, watching them as they tried to regain composure and keep moving.
And then I hit something solid, and fell to the ground.
“Hey! Hey, are you alright?” I groaned, and my eyes fluttered open. I lay on the sidewalk, my head throbbing. Above me was a blurry looking boy, about my age, maybe a little older, with blackish hair. As my eyes focused I saw his hand outstretched, and I grabbed hold of it. He pulled me up, and I tried to stand, got a little light-headed, and looked for something to hold on to.
Unfortunately the only thing around was his shoulder. I steadied myself, blushing deeply as I did, and then looked the something I had run into in the eye.
“You alright?” he asked. He didn’t look as tired as a fever victim, and he didn’t seem injured. Except for the throbbing in my head, I was fine.
“What exactly were you doing?” he asked, leaning against the cement wall of a small joke shop that was closed until further notice.
“Some guys in white coats were chasing me. I was trying to outrun them.” I explained, glancing around the corner to an empty sidewalk. “What exactly did I run into?”
“You ran into me.” He said, but when I reddened and began to apologize, he interrupted me. “It was no problem, you’re not that big.” He said, and I smiled. He blushed, and then there was silence.
“So, um, what exactly are you doing out here?” I asked him.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” He answered, looking at me curiously. “You don’t seem the type to run away from home.”
“Neither do you.” I said matter-of-factly.
“You don’t know that. I could be a high school drop-out drugee with the IQ of a large rodent.”
“The fact that you just said that made me think otherwise.” I laughed, and finding that I had nothing to do with my hands, I stuck them awkwardly in the back pockets of my jeans. “I’m Angela.”
“You look tired.” He said. “Do you have the fever?”
“No. My mother and sister have it though. They’re in the hospital, and I didn’t want to catch it, so I left. My father isn’t really... here... though so I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“I see. I don’t have it either. My parents and younger sister and brother left the city to escape it, and ended up catching it at my uncle’s house in Milwaukee.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
“This is the city I’ve lived in my entire life. I wasn’t about to run away from it because of some fever that’ll blow away sometime soon.”
I was silent.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s... it’s nothing.” I answered.
He looked at me, as if he knew me, and I saw something in his eyes that reminded me so much of something, someone, else. Someone familiar. “The fact that you just said that made me think otherwise.” He said.
I laughed, and then grew silent. He stood, arms folded across his chest, a critical stare that went right through my skin and bone and hit my heart. Who was it? Who did he remind me of?
“Are you going to stare at me, or tell me?”
“Sorry...” I began, and sighed. “Alright. This fever isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s not like that. It’s a disease that somehow causes the blood flow to the brain to weaken, which causes hallucinations and screws up the function of a lot of important body parts.”
“Oh...” he said, and sunk onto the sidewalk, leaning against the wall heavily.
“I’m sorry...” I began, but he spoke, more to himself than to me.
“Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t I go with them. They’re all... all gone. Never. No. I... No...” he put his head in his hands, and cried. I was so shocked, I’d never seen a boy my age cry before. I walked over to him, sitting beside him, and hugged him tight.
And by the way, when it comes to delving into my secrets, this stranger doesn’t count.
“Hey. Angela, wake up.” I shook my head, groaning. I didn’t open my eyes, just tried to burrow under my blankets.
“Just... five more minutes, Mom.”
“I’m not your mom.”
My eyes fluttered open, revealing a white mattress and a boy that definitely was not my mother. I blushed.
“Sorry.” I looked around. I was surrounded by spotless white and cream colored mattresses. “Am I...”
“In a mattress store. How’d you guess?” he asked, and laughed. I climbed off a flower printed mattress, and tried to remember the night before.
“How did I get here?” I asked. I remembered hugging him tight, letting his cry on my shoulder, and then leaning against that cement wall. It had been so comfortable.
“It was pretty cute when you fell asleep against my shoulder.” He said, and I laughed, turning redder by the second.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been in the hospital sleeping in a plastic chair for the past couple days.”
“It’s all right. No harm done. Except for maybe some drool...”
“Shut up!” I laughed. And then everything was silent.
“So...” Zachary said, sitting down on the edge of the closest mattress.
“So...” I responded, looking down, suddenly embarrassed.
“You know, we have to stick together, now that we’ve found each other.”
“I mean, we must be freaks, you and I, for not having the fever by now.”
“Yeah. Freaks of nature.”
“And we can’t just go out alone, because the white coats will get one of us.”
“Yeah, those scientists that were chasing you. White coats.”
“What are they chasing me for?”
“It’s not just you. They’re chasing all of us freaks of nature. They want to catch us and use us for science. So they can find the cure.”
“But, they can’t do that!” I demanded, “We can’t just run for the rest of our lives knowing that if we’re caught, we’re dead. Just like that!”
“Do you see anyone fit enough to stop them?”
“But, don’t they have morals?” I asked, outraged at these white coats, outraged at Zachary, for making it all seem normal.
“Listen Angela. Don’t be mad. They’re morals were the first to go when the fever hit. You get the fever, you go crazy. They wanted a cure, fame and fortune, and everything that went with it.”
“Angela, there’s nothing we can do. We’ve got to run, stay alive, and hope that we don’t catch the fever.”
“But, if we haven’t caught it by now, aren’t we immune, or something.”
“Not necessarily. I haven’t had much contact with fever victims. I could just be stronger than some of my family members, or my little contact has strengthened my immune system against the disease. I can still catch it though.”
“I’ve had close contact with patients for the last month, and I haven’t caught it!” I pointed out.
“Angela, you have nothing to prove. I’m no expert, you’re no expert. We can just hope that nothing happens.”
“Where are we going to go?”
Silence. I gazed up at him, as he bit his lip, thinking.
“My dad owns a house in Ridgewood.”
“Ridgewood? That’s thirty miles away!”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
I shrugged. My apartment building would close down soon, and everyone there was sick anyway. And then it hit me.
“Yes. I do.”
I grabbed Zachary’s hand, tugging him through the street. I started jogging, a slow jog for me, but we were going far.
“Where are we going?”
“How far can you run?” I asked, ignoring his question.
“Depends, how far are we running?”
“To my apartment.”
“Hmm, from here, four or five miles.”
He grabbed my hand and swung me around. He grabbed my shoulders, ad faced me. I looked up at him, he was a good two inches taller. His eyes were brown, and he smiled.
“I have a faster way.”
“Zachary, where are we?”
I followed him into a small white building. It was locked, but he stuck a credit card in the door and unlocked it.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, pointing to the platinum card in his hand.
“Does it look like I’m going anywhere?”
“Later.” He opened the door, and stepped into a simple building with a wood counter on the far side and a few brochure racks and smaller desks. Zachary went straight to the cashier’s counter and started digging behind the desk. He came out with a set of keys.
“What are those...” I began. He smiled mischievously. “Zachary, no way.”
“We are not stealing a car!” I demanded.
“Nobody wants it. It’s a rental place, it’s not like it’s a personal car.”
“Angela, do you want to run thirty miles?”
“We can’t drive, Zachary!”
“Don’t be too quick to judge.” He said.
“How... you know what, never mind. I really don’t want to know.” I said, and he smiled.
“I knew you’d understand.”
“What car is that too?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Stop here. This is my building.” I said. Zachary came to a shaky stop, letting the car idle.
“What are you getting?”
“My mom’s bank card.”
“Hmmm, food, gas.”
“We can steal it all.”
“If we make it through this I’d rather not have twenty to life in the big house, thanks.”
“Did you just call prison ‘the big house’?” he laughed.
“Shut up, and stay here.”
I climbed the stairs to my door, sticking the key in and jiggling the lock, harder than usual. I searched the apartment, packing a bag to take with me, along with a lunch box full of food for Zachary and I to eat before we got there. After fishing through my mother’s drawers for her bank card, I grabbed the bags, a cell phone with my mother’s scarcely used minute cards, and a flashlight, and then headed back down the stairs.
When I came out of the door to the building, Zachary started laughing.
“Pack for months?” he asked.
I stuck out my tongue. “It’s just essentials.” I explained, tossing the lunch box in the front seat and dropping the other bags in the back seat. Then I climbed into the passenger and laughed.
“Onward, chauffeur!” I demanded, trying to sound stuck-up and ending up in a fit of laughter.
“Anything for you, Madam!” Zachary laughed and hit the gas, sending us speeding down the empty street.
We arrived an hour later to a gray house surrounded by an iron gate and a forest of wilting flowers and the remains of a crab apple tree. Zachary smiled, opening the gate with a flick of his wrist and taking his key from his pocket. The key went smoothly into the lock, and I gasped as he pushed the door open.
“Whoa.” I said, as he stepped into the house onto a neatly swept doormat. Beyond that were polished cherry floors and a spiral staircase to the left, a living room with spotless leather couches and a plasma screen television, a kitchen with an island and matching stools and stainless steel appliances, and then a hallway that lead to more rooms I couldn’t see.
“Come on.” He said, and I stepped into the house, slipping off my shoes and carrying my bags with me, as he took off his shoes and collapsed onto the sofa.
“Put your bags down.”
“What if they stain the floor?” I asked, gazing at the spotless wood, and the utter inferiority of my gray Adidas sports bag. Then again, to fit in with in this world of stainless steel and Picasso originals, I’d have to have a leopard fur Prada suitcase set.
“Just put them down.” He said. I carefully set the bags down on the floor, cringing as they hit the floor with barely a whisper. I looked at Zachary, who instantly burst out laughing.
“I’m guessing you’ve never been in a house like this?” he asked, watching as I blushed crimson and bit my lower lip.
“You guessed right.”
“Well, welcome to my home.”
Zachary’s house was immense. It had a parlor, den, dining room, office, living room, family room, kids room, five bedrooms, a personal bathroom for each bedroom, and then two other public bathrooms with just a toilet that Zachary called a powder room. He showed me the finished basement where his bedroom was, away from his parents and siblings rooms, and the many guest bedrooms, and showed me all of the similarly decorated guest bedrooms, simple, feminine. He told me to pick one, and I could stay there and unpack, if I wanted.
“The house is your too, now. Have fun. I’ll be in the shower.” He said, and then sniffed the air, cringing. “I need one.”
“Alright.” I answered, and Zachary left me to my room, a large room with a queen sized bed without a headboard, simple and modern with a violet and gold color palette and a chaise lounge with throw pillows in the corner. The room was simply decorated with priceless objects, vases of pure gold with a single violet flower, and an entertainment system hidden behind a wooden cupboard with doors to disguise it. It made me think of Lucy, from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I imagined myself in Narnia, far away from this unfamiliar city and this all too familiar disease.
I unpacked, stacking my few outfits in the dresser, peeling off my old clothes, sweaty and brown with muck, and changing into jeans and a tee shirt that still smelled like home. It was a scent that used to be my world, the smell of leftover pizza and Chinese food mixed with the clean scent of laundry detergent and a hint of smoke that seemed to seep from the hallway into our small apartment. It smelled familiar, like Mom and Denise, like me and my bed, and the couch and the kitchen. It was a smell that I’d never noticed before.
If life could have a scent, this would be mine.
Zachary emerged after a long shower with wet hair and a smile. He was clean, cleaner than I’d ever seen him anyway, and had on a blue striped dress shirt rolled up to him elbows and a pair of baggy khaki shorts. I lay on my bed, feet by my mountain of pillows, also freshly showered and dressed, my hair air drying in a high ponytail.
“I forgot to show you something.” He said.
“Yeah?” I followed him up the stairs and into a room with the feel of a teenager, blue and brown walls with pink thrown in. Chinese symbols littered the walls in frames, painted in brown.
“Who’s room is this.”
“My sister’s. She was twelve, but tall. About you size, actually.” He said, and then threw open her closet doors.
“This, Angela, is now yours.”
Before me was a closet full of designer clothing and handbags, placed carefully on shelves, countless pairs of shoes in stainless steel racks below the hangers, everything organized by designer and color and shade. I gasped, amazed, not wanting to even touch the clothes, so carefully ironed and folded, in prime condition.
My eyes wide, I couldn’t speak. He smiled.
“Pretty amazing isn’t it?”
Silence. Then I spoke. “You’re sure?”
“Don’t thank me, thank my sister.”
There was silence, and I knew Zachary was thinking of his younger sister, lying there, sweating her way to a slow death. Hallucinating, calling his name, but he’s not there. He’s not there.
I looked at Zachary, the lost look on his face, and then did something I’d never done before. I walked over and wrapped my arms around him, hugging him tight, as if I’d never let go. And the amazing thing was, that he hugged me back.
A few days in the mansion he called a house and I was pretty much used to the many objects inside that were worth more than I was. Zachary still laughed when I was worried about scratching the polished wood floors, or accidentally dropping a vase. He said that it didn’t really matter, because his mother wouldn’t find out anyway.
I was still wearing my own clothes, admiring the designer wear in Zachary’s younger sister’s Claudia’s closet, but never touching it, or trying it on. It was tempting, but something about it was right. So I washed my tee shirts and jeans every couple days, never even thinking of wearing, or even trying on, the expensive clothing.
Zachary and I watched television, game shows and sitcoms, laughing together at HBO movies and the sincerity of all this fiction. It was nothing compared to a world where we were cast aside, forgotten, or maybe remembered, but left behind.
The one thing I noticed most between Zachary and I, though, was that we were growing closer and closer.
“Angela, here’s a question for you.” Zachary said, after the cheesy reality show we were watching went to commercial.
“Yeah?” I asked, tucking my legs around me and leaning against the soft leather of the sofa Zachary and I shared. He turned to me.
“If we were the last people left on Earth, in the entire world, and we weren’t sick, would you marry me?”
“Well, considering we couldn’t get legally married without a priest or something...”
“OK, so we and a priest are the last people on Earth.” He added.
“Then, yes. I would.”
“Yes.” I answered. He smiled. “How about you?” I asked.
I smiled too, suddenly warmer inside. Somebody out there, somebody alive and well, loved me.
After the show was finished, I decided to go to sleep. Zachary flicked off the television, turning to me. “I’m headed to bed.” I said.
“Goodnight.” I turned to leave, but Zachary caught me, grabbing my shoulder.
“Yeah...” I asked, turning, and then suddenly his lips were pressed to mine, and I was lost. Everything around me was forgotten, a blur. Nothing. Eventually he pulled away, blushing.
I smiled at him, and then when he turned to go, I tapped his shoulder. He whirled around, and wrapped my arms around his shoulders and hugged him tight.
“Zachary?” I asked, calling up the stairs to Zachary from the kitchen. “Do you want some breakfast?”
There was no answer, and then I heard the shower water running, and I sighed.
“Alright. I’ll make breakfast then.” I called, as if he could hear me through the pounding water against expensive black tile. “But if I burn your toast it’s definitely on purpose!”
Silence but for the faint sound of water running through the pipes. I was tempted to turn on the dishwasher, but decided against it, pouring cereal into a bowl for myself and popping toast into the toaster and sliding the dial to dark for Zachary.
After finishing my cereal and pouring a glass of citrus sparkling water, popping down Zachary’s toast to cook, I sat on the couch and flipped on the TV. Eventually Zachary came crawling down the stairs, half-asleep.
“Hey!” I said.
“Ugh.” Zachary groaned.
“I made you toast.” I said, pointing to the bread burning in the toaster on the counter.
“I’m skipping breakfast.”
“I have a headache. Pounding.” He complained, popping aspirins into his mouth.
And then I was shot back to Denise, yelling from my dark bedroom for an aspirin, and a glass of water. My mother, flipping off lights and leaving me submerged in the dark apartment.
“No!” I screamed, running up to Zachary and throwing my arms around him.
“What? What’s wrong!” He asked, hugging me back and then putting his hands on my shoulders. “What’s the matter?”
“Zachary, I’m not going to loose you too!”
“I’m not going anywhere!” he said, confused.
“It starts...” I began choking back sobs of terror and pain. “It starts with a headache...”
“No. I went to bed late last night, too much TV. It’s fine. I’m alright.”
I sighed, and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Zachary snatched a tissue from a nearby tissue box, handing to me with a look of concern.
“You going to be okay?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It’s just...” I paused, blowing my nose.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” He said, hugging me tight. “You just scared me.”
“You promise you’ll be alright?”
“Okay.” I said, smiling, and untangling myself from Zachary’s arms. And then I smelt the toast.
“Oh god! Toast!” I cried, and popped up the toast. A small square of blackened bread remained, crumbling from between my fingers as I tried to pick it up. I grabbed a paper plate and set it down in front of Zachary. “Bon appetite.”
Zachary picked it up and bit down, letting it crumble against his tongue, and the swallowed, licking his lips. “Just how I like it.” He said, and I laughed.
“Zachary, are you sure you’re okay?” I asked, helping him up from the couch and handing him a glass of water.
“I’m fine, Angela. I was just dehydrated.” He answered, gladly gulping down the pristine water in one of his mother’s best crystal glasses. He set it down on an end table, without a coaster, which almost made me gag, but I held my tongue.
“Zachary, sit down.”
“Angela...” he began, trying to sit up, and then blinking a few times and falling back on the couch in a wave of dizziness.
“I’m fine!” he cried. “God Angela, you’re not my mother.”
“I...” I began, eyes brimming with tears. I tried to hold them back, not wanting to seem insecure and upset, but one escaped. I quickly brushed it away.
“No. You’re right. I shouldn’t be so overprotective.” I said, wiping away another tear and turning my back, heading for the stairs.
“Just... please don’t talk to me right now, Zachary.”
“No, Angela, come here!”
“Angela, it’s the white coats!”
“What?” I cried, turning to Zachary, who was peeking through a slat in the expensive European shades. I tiptoed over, crawling beside Zachary and peeking out the same slat.
Outside were two men, panting, clipboards dangling limply from their pale, thin hands. They were sweating, white coats open to reveal simple white shirts and black ties tied at odd angles and incorrectly. They were searching the air, noses lifted to the breeze like hungry dogs that had caught an almost non-existent stench of meat.
“How?” I asked Zachary, racking my mind for something we could have left behind. Anything that could have lead them here. I searched my mind, remembering the apartment door, left unlocked and barely closed, and the door to the car renters, the door jimmied open and a set of keys missing. But surely those simple things couldn’t have lead them here.
“I don’t know, but I’m not about to go out there and ask them.” Zachary said, and looked at me, eyes wide with fear.
Then he let go of the wooden slat and bounded off the couch, throwing open a closet door and tugging out three sturdy duffel bags.
“What are you doing?” I asked, standing up and walking quickly over to where he stood in the kitchen, packing food into one of the duffel bags. A package of bottled water, canned ravioli and bags of chips, crackers and peanut butter. He shoved a bag at me.
“Pack. We’re leaving.”
“What!” I demanded. “When did we decide this?”
“We didn’t. I did. Go. Pack some of my sisters sweat pants, something you can move in, something warm. Go!” He demanded.
“Alright!” I cried, pounding up the stairs and into Claudia’s old room, grabbing designer sweat suits off the hangers and folding them quickly, travel sized shampoo and a tooth brush followed, under garments and hair ties, a hairbrush, and then I zipped the stuffed bag tight, throwing it on my shoulder and rushing back downstairs.
Moments later Zachary came charging up the stairs, carrying his bag and the bag of food, and he said nothing, quickly moving down the hallway and into the den. I followed hastily, almost jogging to meet his long strides. He walked to the back of the den, and opened the French doors to a small patio closed in for winter. He threw open a window, tossing he bags outside and then slipping easily between the panes. I handed him my bags and smoothly lifted my leg through, and then ducked, sliding my head under quickly. And then we were out.
Zachary went charging ahead down a winding stone path the eventually turned to gravel, and then a small garage appeared, sided gray with moss inching its way along to the roof. Finally Zachary came to a stop before the large white garage door, dropping the bags onto the gravel and bending down, reaching for the small silver handle near the bottom. He tugged at it, and eventually it was thrown up to reveal a small silver car, dusty but new looking, gleaming from the dark depths of the musty garage.
“This was my father’s first car. He used to fix it up and take it out every once and while for old times sake. Forgot about it though, for a while, and he let it get dusty. He said I could have it when I was sixteen.” Zachary grinned mischievously at me, “Seems as if I was ready for it before he planned.” Zachary snatched the keys from a shelf in the garage and threw the bags into the back seat.
“Climb in.” He said, grinning and slipped into the car.
“Zachary, they’ll see us, won’t they?” I asked him, closing the car door firmly behind me and snapping my seatbelt in. I tossed my bag in the back among the others. Zachary took out a roadmap from the dash, handing it to me.
“Nope. Separate driveway.”
“Where do you want to go?” He asked me.
“Anywhere?” I asked.
“I’m driving.” He said, smiling.
“Alright. My mother was born in Boston. She said it was an amazing city.” I smiled. “And easy to get lost in.”
Zachary looked confused. “How is that good.”
“That’s what we want, right? To be lost.” I grinned and opened the map to New England. “Alright, do you know how to get to Garden State Parkway?” I asked him.
“Who doesn’t?” he laughed and he hit the gas, catapulting us out of the driveway and onto the gravel. A quick left turn and we were on a narrow street, on our way to Boston, Massachusetts.
Later we drove, the radio playing an unfamiliar station, Zachary sitting tall in his seat, trying to look older for he empty highway. I had the map of Massachusetts sprawled before me, my finger on the road we were currently on, dragging it along the interstate, and then across an exit.
“Alright, take the exit onto I-90 East. The Massachusetts Turnpike.” I said, looking up from the map, finger poised on the thin paper, at Zachary. He wasn’t smiling, but wasn’t frowning, a look of concentration crossed his face.
“What exit is that?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.” I said, searching the map, but finding nothing.
“Alright. Look for me.” He said, eyes firmly on the road. I nodded, searching signs. There! “Massachusetts Turnpike, exit 134.” Read a large green sign. I turned to Zachary. He was frowning now.
“Zachary, what’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing. What exit is it?” He asked.
“Zachary. Pull over.”
“What? What is it?” He asked, and he kept on driving.
“Zachary, something is wrong.”
“What exit is it? He asked, almost demanding the answer. I saw tears brimming in his eyes.
“Zachary, pull over.” I said again, calm.
And then he burst into tears, the steering wheel slipping from his hands. He tried to get a loose grip on it, but his hands fell again, into his lap. I gripped the steering wheel, trying to steer it back to normal. Zachary tried the steering wheel again, this time gripping it loosely, and he hit the brakes, hard. We skidded sideways across the road, and then stopped.
I breathed heavily, letting my hands fall from the steering wheel. I heaved out a breath I’d been holding, and then turned to Zachary. He looked at me, eyes tearing, and anger burned in my eyes. He looked ay me, eyes filling again, and then shook his head, trying not to cry.
“Zachary...” I said, looking at him, but not knowing what to say.
“Angela, I’m sorry. So, so, sorry. It’s just, the last time I left that house it was to go to New York to escape everything that was happening to my family. I was going to meet my family at the hotel I was staying at. And then I went back to the house, and just knowing they weren’t there, it hurt, but being there, around what was theirs, it dulled the pain. You know? And now, here I am, leaving Ridgewood, leaving New York. It’s like, leaving my family for good. For ever.” Tears flowed down his cheeks, but he kept talking. “And I know that you saw you’re family dying before your eyes, and I know that you might say that when you left that hospital it hurt, but I’d get over it. But I never knew, never imagined that I’d ever have to leave them all forever.”
“Angela, please, don’t try to dull the pain, because I can’t hold back anymore. I can’t keep my feelings bottled up.”
“Zachary!” I cried. He looked at me, almost angry. “Zachary, I know. I know that nothing dulls the pain and that nothing can stop you from crying sometimes. I know. Alright?” I asked, and then he smiled a slight smile.
And then I laughed. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t stop laughing, smiling, tears spilling down my cheeks and I remembered everything I’d been holding back. Every memory I’d bottled up and tried to forget.
There was Denise and I, running, no flying, through a meadow, my mother snapping pictures as we danced around, picking dandelions. It was amazing, and I felt like a princess. I remembered the Halloweens all those years ago, dressed as pumpkins and fairies and witches with warts and tall top hats, slathering on sloppy green goop to color our faces. And I remembered those days as Denise grew, the anger in her toward me dying down. Her voice softer, her eyes kinder. I would never forget that Denise, the one that I hugged tight as Mom screamed out for people we didn’t know, never would. The Denise I loved and always would.
I finally stopped laughing, and looked beside me. Zachary laughed too, shaking his head and laughing, crying and laughing, red-faced. I smiled at him, and tapped his shoulder.
“It’s exit 134.”
He laughed, and restarted the car, wiping the tears of joy, remembrance from his eyes. He headed up the road, and for a moment I forgot that we were just thirteen. I forgot that we were just kids, just children. I forgot that my life was so different, so horrible, grief-stricken and painful. I forgot about the pain, about my mom, and Denise, lying in the hospital bed. I forgot abut everything, and just imagined us, Zachary and I, our lives simple, complete, driving into the sunset at the end of all those pointless chick movies. I forgot that a sunset was no longer so important, because right now, that long twisting road, hilly and vibrantly green, and multicolor sunset on the horizon spreading it’s pinks and oranges across the sky was all that mattered.
It was silent. Sun streamed in through the back window, falling across my face. I opened my eyes, rubbing the sleep drowsily away. I was in the back seat, sprawled out, head resting on my clothing bag. I wore warm sweatpants, Claudia’s. Zachary slept in the passenger seat, head resting against the cool window. I shivered. The cold morning air crept in from outside, and I looked around the car for the keys.
Finding nothing, I hesitantly tapped Zachary’s shoulder. “Zachary?” I whispered. He twitched, but didn’t wake up. “Zachary?” I asked, a little louder. Still nothing.
“Zachary!” I demanded. He was startled awake, shaking his head. He started coughing, a hacking cough, and I quickly started to pound against his back, trying to beat away the coughs.
Finally he fell silent. I looked at him, scared.
“I’m fine.” Zachary said. “You just startled me.”
“Zachary, you’re sick.” I said, the back of my head against his forehead. “You’re warm.”
“I’m fine, Angela.” He demanded.
I was silent. Angry. Why couldn’t he just admit he was sick? Why couldn’t he tell me, so I could help?
“Angela, I’m sorry.”
“It’s doesn’t matter.” I said.
“Yes. It does. I’m sorry. But, really, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not worrying.” I lied, biting my top lip. He looked skeptical, but said nothing.
“I just ruined our first morning in Boston, didn’t I?” he asked.
I looked outside. We were on a vacant road, apartments ahead of us, and small shops littered with closed signs. It was quiet, but something about it was beautiful. I’d missed the stoplights at every corner, the shops and glass windows filled with goodies, candy and shoes, clothes on manikins with blank faces, plastic, but in their own sense, real.
“No. Nothing could ruin our first morning back in the city.” I said, and threw open the door, letting the cold New England air engulf me, the wind whipping my hair around my head in tendrils of mousy brown. I opened my arms and breathed in the our, smoky and polluted. City air. My air.
“Zachary! This is amazing!” I cried out, running to the nearest shop and peering into the window, searching the shop like a hungry four-year-old at a grocery store.
“You know, most people would feel this way in the fresh country air. But you’re different. You’re a city girl. I like that about you.” Zachary said. I smiled, running back to him and throwing my arms open.
“This is amazing. Incredible. Terrific!” I cried to the sky, hazy and gray with fog and the oncoming snow of winter. But nothing could ruin this day. I was back in the city! I was back home.
“Zachary, I don’t need blue skies and open spaces. I don’t need twisting dirt roads that lead no where and pastures. I don’t need cows or horses, cats or dogs. All I need is a city.” I said.
“I can tell.”
“I need skyscrapers and pollution, dirty air, smoke stained stoops and small family owned shops that barely get by. I need designer stores to gaze in the windows, and I need public schools to complain about.”
“Believe, me it doesn’t have to be public to complain about it.” Zachary laughed. I smiled at him. I couldn’t help smiling in this city, in any city. It was just amazing, being back. It was almost as good as being home.
Almost, but not quite.
“So... What do we do now?” Zachary asked.
Cold wind billowed outside. It was October, the month I thought would never come. I sat, bundled in a fleece blanket, steam rising from the pot that Zachary had set to boil. On the counter was a container of canned ravioli. Zachary and I had been living off the stuff for what seemed like ages, but had really only been days, a week.
I was on the floor, but it was carpeted, hard but better than the rough, cold sidewalk smudged with cigarette stains and littered with leaves and debris thrown from overflowing garbage cans.
We’d found a small restaurant, not boarded up, and with a kitchen and food. It was an Italian restaurant, but so far Zachary and I ate from what we’d brought with us. Inside a closet in the small Italian eatery I’d found an emergency kit, blankets and bandages, complete with disinfectant. Zachary and I shared the blanket, using the rough medicinal thread used to sow wounds to sow together towels for a second blanket, this one tougher, but stained.
Zachary returned from the back room with marinara sauce. “The real stuff.” He explained when I gave him a curious look. I nodded, wrapping the blanket tighter around me and wishing we had heat. Parked behind the building a good minutes walk away was the small silver car, hidden along with the bags and things we’d had so to make this place seem normal and uninhabited should the white-coats come here.
“How would they know?” I’d asked when Zachary drove around to the back of the building, parking the car in a gravel drive meant for the owners of the apartments above.
“They found us before.” He said. “They’re as good as blood hounds. They’re so used to the sweat and grime, the deathly smell of fever victims, of themselves, that now they can smell the healthy, the free, like greedy dogs.
“It scares me.” I said, shivering at the thought of the bloodthirsty humans sniffing the air, sweat pouring off their pale faces, panting, but never stopping.
“What scares you?”
“That we can turn into such animals. Such horrid excuses for beings. That when death strikes, we don’t strike back, we change. We become greedy, inhuman things that can only think of themselves. ‘Save ourselves for now, everyone else can wait’ they say.” I was silent for a moment trying to picture Denise, smiling, healthy. Bu I couldn’t. “But they can’t wait. They can’t.”
“There are sometimes when I wish I knew where my parents were. Where Claudia was. If they were still alive.”
“You know, I think I’d rather not know.” I said.
“You can’t ignore death.”
“I know. But you can hide from it.”
Boston was colder than New York had been. Which made sense, considering it was farther north that New York and Ridgewood. I felt the cold through the front windows, large and in need of curtains. Zachary and I had ventured up to the apartments, found extra blankets, and were using those as makeshift curtains in case of emergency. But Zachary preferred the curtains open, so he could see outside.
I would walk around outside the store, down the street with its small vintage clothing shops and cafes that still smelled faintly of fresh-brewed coffee, served black with pastries. It made me think of that day, alone but for the cashier in the small cafe only blocks away from my aparmtent, before I’d known so much about this disease. Before I’d met Zachary. Before this mess that has become my life.
“Angela!” Zachary called from the back room. I stood, dropping the blanket on the floor and headed stiffly, frigidly, over to the back storage room where Zachary rummaged around in search of supplies.
“Yeah?” I asked, leaning against the cherry wood doorframe, not stepping onto the cold cement floor of the storage room.
“Look at this.” He said, holding up a framed photograph of a small family, two children, one about eleven, and the other only about four, a father smiling, wearing a white apron stained with marinara sauce and various salad dressings. A mother was beside him, carrying a small child barely visible from between a soft looking blue blanket. He had black fuzz atop his head, the beginnings of hair. Zachary smiled, handing me the photograph.
“They owned the place. I’ve found a couple photos of them, family photos. I think they used this room as storage and they lived in one of the upstairs apartments.” Zachary explained.
Tears brimmed in my eyes at the sight of the small family, so happy looking in the picture. They looked so closely knit, like my family, before this fever tore us apart. Tore me apart.
“I don’t know much about your family, Angela.” Zachary said, standing up among the boxes and looking at me. Curious. I didn’t want to tell him. I wanted to lie and say that my father was still there, beside my mother’s bedside. That he still hugged me close, or that he had, before this fever. That I remembered more of him that just the snapshots of life from before most memories were even thought about.
“I’m fine.” I said, wiping away the tear that had fallen, unnoticed onto my cheek.
“Angela, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No. It’s fine. I’m not upset.”
“I just... I wanted to know more about you. I really like you, Angela, and it seems like I know so little about you.”
“You know enough.” I said, almost selfish. They were my memories. Mine. No one else should have to share the pain.
“No. I want to know about the Angela before this fever. I want to know the real Angela.”
“You mean, the old Angela.”
“No. The Angela that’s hiding inside this tough outer shell. I know that this isn’t the real you. I know it.”
“No! You don’t know! You don’t know the real me Zachary, so how would you know if there really is a person inside this monster being that I have on the outside.” I yelled. Zachary shrank back, but I kept yelling. I couldn’t stop. “You must think I’m so level-headed. That I never really cared about hair and make-up and nails. Or maybe you think I’m a normal girl, smarter than the others. I’m not! I’m not smart, and I’m not pretty. I’m not average, and it seems like every other girl out there has a father to protect them, to tell them they can’t date until their forty, and that their skirt is too short, their nails to flashy! I’ve never had that. Never.”
I sank onto my knees, leaning against the doorframe. I was afraid I would fall. I wanted to cry, but it seemed like I’d shed every tear. Stop crying. Stop crying. Nothing can hurt you. No one can hurt you. I remember telling myself over and over as he hit me. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t cry, because that was weak. That was childish and weak, and he’d never like me then. He’d never like me if I was so small and childish. So tiny that I could never stand a chance.
I was drowned in memories, small clips of past life, snapshots, blurry Polaroid’s of his face, contorted with anger as he hit me, hit me again and again. He never liked me. Never had. Denise was his girl, his darling genius of a girl, and I was just a mistake. Just a mistake that would never amount to anything.
“Angela?” Zachary exclaimed. I didn’t hear, not really, his voice was twisted in my mind. His words came from my father’s lips as he smiled devilishly. His eyes a dancing with sparks of happiness as he beat me. His voice was rough, taunting, as he mimicked my screams. I wanted more than anything to leave this world, my life, right now. I wanted to leave this nightmare, this horrible daydream. This isn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to forget!
“Forget what? Angela!” Zachary called. He shook me, but I couldn’t leave this dream. This horrible nightmare, this daydream to end all daydreams.
And then finally, finally, I came back. The horror ended, and there, above me, was Zachary. In his eyes I saw panic, pain. I shook my head, trying to clear it. I sat up and a wrenching pain in my back sending me back onto the rough carpet.
“Angela? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” I said, trying to sit again, bearing the pain in my back and standing. I brushed the non-existent dust from my pants and walked away.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I really am.” Zachary said, following me into the kitchen.
“I’m not mad.” I lied, my voice stiff, unfeeling.
And then Zachary whirled me around, hands on my shoulders. In his eyes, there was anger, fury. I saw this hatred there, and I was afraid. What would he do?
“Listen, Angela! Stop throwing yourself a pity party. We’re supposed to be in this together. Together! So I don’t need you lying about how you feel. You don’t want to talk about something fine! Fine! We’ll leave it at that. And if there’s an apology for going to far, delving to deep, then you accept it. You can’t be mad over a misunderstanding. How could I know about you? How?”
“I... I...” I began. But I didn’t know how to finish. How do you respond to something like that?
“Exactly.” Zachary said. The anger leaked from his eyes, and then there was compassion. Friendship.
“Truce?” I asked, extending my hand in a business-like manner.
“Truce.” Zachary said, and shook my hand firmly.
I wanted to laugh as Zachary pulled away, face so serious. I’d never seen him so serious. But there was something about Zachary that was serious, even if the rest of him was so care-free. I wanted to know more, but held back, biting my tongue. There was also a part of him where I knew he didn’t want to tell me.
The stairs creaked as I climbed them up to the top apartment. It was the largest of the apartments, and Zachary had sent me up for blankets and other important supplies. We were both getting sick of the seat cushion beds. He said that if there was a small mattress to try to bring it down. It would be better than the seat cushions and thin blankets we had now.
I was worried about Zachary. He was quieter than usual, and he ate very little. At night I would awaken to his coughing. I knew he was getting sick. With what, I didn’t know. And part of me never wanted to find out. I finally made it to the top floor, sliding a credit card into the door and popping the lock. You’re a criminal, Angela. What happened to you, taking other’s things for yourself?
I could hear my mother, scolding. Denise would laugh at me. “No, what did you really do?” she’s ask.
“But they weren’t here to ask. They weren’t here to laugh at me, like old times. Denise couldn’t figure out the alarm clock, or how to turn off the CD player for me anymore. My mother was no longer there to watch the Hills with and there was no more pizza or Chinese take-out brought home after work.
“I’m doing it to live. I’m doing this so there’s another generation of Palmer’s. I’m doing this so that I’m not the only one left. I’m doing this for the good of the world.” I told them, told myself. I opened the door to the apartment, flipping on the lights to a currently dusty apartment.
There were three bedrooms, a rare occurrence in apartments. The rooms were spacious too, and organized. I quickly found the blankets and flashlights, batteries and some cans of soup. I put all my items in a box I emptied of printer paper in the small office off the living room. I placed the box outside the door, grabbing a child’s twin mattress off the bed and sending it crashing down the stairs. Nobody was there to hear it but me.
I carried the light-weight box down the steps, setting it down inside the small cafe where we slept and dragged the mattress in after it. Zachary was in the kitchen, stirring the tomato soup he was making for lunch for the two of us. I dropped the mattress on the ground in the middle of the cafe.
“I see you found something.” Zachary said, eyeing the mattress with contained excitement.
“I thought I should grab it.” I said.
“Did you find anything else?”
“Just blankets and stuff.” I answered.
“Why?” I asked him, confused. “What did you want me to find?”
“Zachary, you said we wouldn’t lie to each other.” I reprimanded.
“You’re not my mother.”
I was getting angry, and Zachary looked almost amused by his smart-mouthed comments.
“That’s right, Zachary. I’m not your mother. So why should I do anything for you around here? Have fun making you own dinner every night. Oh, and you can ue my seat cushions.” I said.
“What?” He asked.
“I brought this mattress down. It’s mine.”
“I shouldn’t have to put up with you, Zachary, on top of everything else. So do me a favor and just don’t talk to me, Mr. Let’s All Be Friends.”
“Don’t” I began, getting angrier and angrier by the minute, “talk to me.”
I awoke to the thumping of floor cushions and body parts against thinning carpet. I looked around, grabbing the flashlight beside my bed and shining the light around the cafe. I finally shone the light on Zachary.
He lay, sweating, eyes unfocused, hazy, on the floor, seat cushion bed torn apart around him. His legs convulsed on the hard floor. I dashed up, flicking on the larger lights. Zachary didn’t turn. He still la, sweating, legs flailing, on the floor. I went to his side, shaking him. I shook him harder and harder, calling his name.
“Zachary!” I screamed. I didn’t care you heard. “Zachary!”
There was nothing.
“Zachary I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, don’t die! Don’t die and leave me here. I need you.”
But he lay there. There was no miracle, no lightning bolt from Heaven that saved his life. I sat beside Zachary’s bedside as he shivered and convulsed, trying to be warm. I piled the blankets on him, but still her shivered. He wouldn’t stop.
And then there was nothing. He lay still. I put my ear to his chest, listening. A faint beat. And then...
I packed my bags; eye wet with tears as I placed cans of soup in the bags, a blanket, and a change of clothes. It wasn’t easy this packing, knowing that in the next room Zachary lay. I zipped the bag, carrying it into the other room. There was one thing left to do before I left. For good. I grabbed Zachary’s bag, emptying it one item at a time onto the floor. He had clothes, a toothbrush. Living needs. And at the bottom, an envelope and a framed picture.
I looked at the picture. It was familiar, and then I realized there had been a larger version on his wall in the den back in Ridgewood. It was his family, wearing there best clothes, smiles on their faces as they posed for the camera. All smiles. All happy. They didn’t know, then, of this horror. They didn’t know then that their son would lie dead on the floor of an empty cafe, no one there to help but a girl of thirteen, who was so stricken with grief that she couldn’t even tell her only friend about her life.
The envelope was addressed to me. I wanted to open it, but I stopped, my finger poised over the V of the seal. Why couldn’t I rip it? What was wrong with me? And yet, the thought of ripping the glue from that paper made me sick. I placed the envelope carefully into on of the bags, smoothing it into a side pocket and securing it with socks to keep it dry. I would never loose that envelope.
I turned to Zachary, who still lay on the floor. I had to. I had to bury him. I couldn’t leave him, restless in his death, on the floor of a foreign cafe in a strange city he barely knew. I couldn’t do that to the last friend I ever had.
I had no shovel, so I tucked my arms underneath his knees and shoulders, carefully, steadily, lifting him. He was thin, and light, for a boy taller than I was. I tried not to look at his face, but looked ahead at the door, a warm oak color, that now seemed so menacing.
And then I was angry. I wanted to rip that door down, tear it to the floor. How dare it block my path! How dare it stop me! I wanted to run right through it, prove that I could do anything, and that even the hardest steel, the roughest woods, could not, would not, stop me. It was not that I could do anything, more that I was sick of all these locked doors. More that I was tired of all these times when I just couldn’t find the key, get the combination, before time ran out, and there was no one left.
I stood there, before the door, and was burning with fiery rage, the cool water, the endless pool, of sadness washing over me as well. My mind was full of the steam they created as they clashed. One would win. One would lose.
And then, pity. “You’re always the loser, aren’t you Angela?” I asked myself. But I wasn’t myself. Was I speaking, or was it just Denise again, or my father, spitting words of anger, of dissatisfaction.
“Even when you’re the last one standing, you don’t know what to do. You have no one, now. No one at all. What are you going to do, you follower, you hopeless, brainless, horrible human being. What are you going to do without your leader?”
“No! Shut up! I can make it! I can do this!” I screamed, to no one. To everyone.
“Yes, Angela, you are this worthless hunk of meat. This horrible thing that needs to be taken out. Why don’t you just turn yourself in to the white coats, Angela. They’ll know what to do with you.”
“How can they still be alive?” I asked her. “If I’m the only one standing?”
“Oh, they find ways. Someone worth something must still be here, or else there would be no world.”
“No world? What do you mean?” I asked.
“You heard me. You know.”
I didn’t answer. Where the white coats alive, still? Where they still there, hunting me?
And then an idea.
“Where are the white coats?” I asked.
“Finally decided to turn yourself in? Finally decided that you’re not worth it after all?” Asked the voice, pleased. It scared me, this pleasure in my pain, but I sucked it away. I knew what I had to do. And listening to this was only part of it.
“Yes. I need to find them. Where are they?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Why not?” I asked, confused. How could this voice know everything, but not be able to answer.
“Because I’m not real.” The voice answered. And then it was gone. I was alone, standing in the hallway before the lovely oak back door. And the voice was gone.
I stood, not sure what to do. I could feel Zachary in my arms, but his weight went unnoticed. I was too caught in my own thoughts to remember him right now.
Finally, not knowing what to do, I sat down, setting Zachary down beside me. It was when I let him go that I felt the pain, my arms weary, every muscle exhausted from his weight, near to mine, even in his sickness.
I awoke, not realizing I’d fallen asleep. I was against the wall, my head turned to the side, my neck cricked to the side and laid uncomfortably against the hard orangey walls. I turned to the left and right, trying to figure out what had woken me.
And then a thump. I turned to the left and right.
Nothing. No one.
Zachary lay beside me. I looked at him, watching him. There was nothing. And then, as I was about to turn away, the thump. His hand fell against the carpet. I watched that hand. Seconds passed. There was nothing.
And then his hand rose again, thumping down on the carpet. Thump. I put my ear to his chest, listening for his heart beat. I listened hard, like trying to hear the snap of a twig in a silent forest. I yearned and yearned for the sound.
Bump-Bump. Bump-Bump. It was faint, barely there at all. Bump-Bump. But it was there! It was! I swept Zachary into a hug, an embrace inhumanly strong, but light, not crushing, but tight. It was a warm hug. He was warm. He was warm and alive and he was here. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone anymore.
“Zachary,” I whispered in his ear, “Zachary, we’re going to find the white coats.”
I’d never driven a car before. The way Zachary did it, it seemed easy. It was an automatic, no shifting involved. Easy. I turned the key in the ignition, listening to the warm hum of the car as it eased into life. It was cold in the car, and I wrapped Zachary, limp against the seat, but still alive, in a blanket taken from the small collection in the cafe. I had packed bags, clothes for Zachary and I, his picture, blankets, a few days worth of food in cans and bags of chips. And the envelope. Tucked firmly in my bag, unopened. I didn’t have to open it. Zachary was alive, and he would live. I knew that no matter what, he would live.
I grasped the steering wheel. I looked at Zachary, imagining him at the wheel, eyes sparkling. He was always laughing, always smiling. I could never be like that, be so carefree. It’s like he knew that his world was going to change around him, whether he liked it or not. And he knew that life was life, and he had to live it to experience it all. With pain comes happiness, with anger comes love. It all works, it all changes. It’s the circle that never ends.
The circle of life.
It made me think of the Lion King. The movie everyone has seen. Everyone. It was the Disney movie that gave you life lesson after life lesson as so many Disney movies do. As a kid, I never got it.
I turned to Zachary. “Zachary?” I asked. “Can a circle ever end?”
I almost saw a smile splay across that pale, thin face. But when I shook my head it was gone.
Can a circle ever end? Am I really the last one. Am I the end of the circle?
When I drove I drove. I didn’t know where, but somehow I ended up alive before my old apartment. The doors were closed, but not locked in most cases, and I found myself in my neighbors apartments, sifting through old pictures and albums. It was as if I knew they’d never come back.
It was all I could think about, this existence without other human beings. I still needed to find the white coats. Where were they? Had we really lost them this time. Had they given up?
Or worse. Were they dead?
“Can you live life without human contact? Can you live life without love?” I asked Zachary, who was slumped in a chair. I could easily lift him now, and so I carried him with me.
“Zachary, you can’t die. No. You can’t. Because then I would really have nobody.”
Nobody but the voice.
Am I crazy? I asked myself. Am I crazy, talking to a half-dead boy and listening to, talking to, the voice of my sister. My dead sister.
“It’s funny how you’re not afraid to admit death when you’ve experienced so much of it.” I told Zachary. He wasn’t listening, and yet I kept talking. “Before this I never much thought of death. My own, especially not my families. It’s like a dream where you run and run from the evil, but when you fall you never actually see yourself die. You’re jolted awake, and you know that you did die, but you don’t actually see it.”
“I know Angela.”
“You know what? Who are you?”
“You don’t know my name, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. We’ve never met, we never will. Because I’m just here to prove that you’re crazy.”
“I am crazy.”
“Yes.” Said the voice. The voice of Denise. But was it Denise. Or was I really crazy?
“I know where the white coats are.”
“You do?” I asked.
“Yes. I do.”
A bang woke me. Light from the hallway illuminated the room. A flashlight, and two men, weak, tired, barely able to stand arrived. They wore white jackets, and though their faces were thrown in shadow I knew who they were.
“I’ve been looking for you.” I said.
I woke up, not realizing I’d fallen asleep inside a van. I was lying on the floor, and Zachary was gone. I bolted up to a sharp pain in my upper arm. I rolled up my sleeve and found a small puncture. Sedative.
“Where’s Zachary?” I called to the front. There were the two men, one driving the other nearly asleep against the door on the passenger side.
There was no answer, so I crawled up to the front, behind the seat, and pulled myself up using arm rest, looking at the pale man.
And that was when my heart melted. In his eyes there was pain. And there was silence. I was confused. Why was he sad? How could he be sad, when he’s out hunting the few people who really haven’t caught this fever, this horrible disease?
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He jumped, and turned to me.
“What?” He asked. It was meant to sound harsh, like the anger of a kidnapper. But it came out soft and humble. Quiet. He knew he was wrong, but he had a reason. I could see it.
“The boy I was with. He’s sick.”
“He’s in the back.”
“Listen girl, he’s in the back. He split of a compartment for the sick, so the healthy don’t get sick.”
“Oh.” I answered.
“Go back and go to sleep. It’ll be a long drive.”
“Where are we going?”
“To out lab.”
“You’re healthy, are you not?”
“We’re trying to find a cure. You’re not sick, after all this, so you must be immune. We have others, like you. Immune ones.” He said. “Not very many.”
“How do you find what makes us immune.”
“We... we operate.”
“So, you put us to sleep, and then operate. Inspect our insides...” I began. “And then we wake back up, and you let us go?”
“We can’t let you go.” He said.
“Why not? After you find the cure, surely you can let us leave. Do our own thing. Survive.”
“I’m afraid that after out surgery...” He started, but didn’t finish.
“You don’t wake up.” He said hesitantly.
“So you kill people! You kill the only healthy people left searching for some cure that might not even be there?” I spat. “You animal! You crazy animal!”
“No. It’s for the good of mankind!” He demanded.
“The good of mankind! The good of mankind! What if you don’t find a cure? Huh? What if there is no cure, and you’re just wiping out the only civilization left that can bring the population back!
“You could be killing the entire human population!”
“And you let yourself do that? How could you be so fever ravaged that you let yourself become to primitive as to kill the only healthy people left?”
“Girl everyone of us is sick. Everyone in the world but you few immune ones. This is so we can save mankind, not kill it.”
“So you’re killing innocent people so you can save everyone else?”
“So you’re saying that one persons life is worth less than anothers?”
“No. I’m saying that five people’s lives are worth less than millions. And believe me, when you see the sick we have back at the lab, you’ll want this surgery.”
“I won’t ever want to die.”
“Alright, you won’t want to. You’ll need to.”
The lab was white. Sterilized white, like a hospital. The driver of the van, Dr. Heski, gave me a tour after carrying his partner to a hospital bed.
“He was weak. Getting weaker by the minute, really.” He explained, showing me the hospital beds and the many sick, pale and either asleep or eyes forced open, staring. Just staring.
Denise came flooding back, and I wanted more than anything to remove her sickly stare from my thoughts. But in each of these patients eyes, I saw Denise. I remembered Denise’s eyes. Blue, brilliantly blue. She was daddy’s little angel, with her blonde curls and blue eyes framed by thick black eyelashes. Her eyes were big, almond shaped and just big enough, so they looked pretty, not buggy.
“You know someone, then?”
“You lost a loved one?”
“I see. I figured you had. Nearly all of us have, you are not alone.” He said. He looked at me. “It hurts.”
I just nodded and followed him down the white hallway. In nearly every bed there was someone sick. And wherever I looked there was pain. My heart hurt I watched them.
“I’m all they have.” I told him. “I’m there last chance.”
“You don’t want to do it. No one ever does.” He said. “And yet so many have. We’ve operated ten times since early October.”
“Zachary,” I began, “the boy I was with, he compared you to a bloodhound. Losing all your morals for greed. For the death of others. I was afraid of you. Until I needed you.”
“Yes. Only you can save Zachary.”
“That’s not true.” He said. I gave him a confused look. “Only you can save Zachary.”
We were silent, him showing me the rest of the lab, even the operating room, stainless steel and spotlessly clean. Shining in the fluorescent light. We walked more, down a carpeted hall, still white, and he showed me a room.
“Sleep here. You can rest now, and shower, if you would like.” He said.
“And think. We will operate tomorrow, if you choose to.”
“If I choose to?”
“There is no fence around this building.”
“If you don’t want us to operate, then leave us. We will hunt you still. But there is no fence. There is no rope, and we have no chains. Run, if you want.” He said. “Make your decision.”
I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t. I lay awake in my bed, staring at the white ceiling, and imagining my body on stainless operating table. Exposed to the fluorescent lighting, like a frog on a lab tray. The knife poised before my stomach.
I knew, this wouldn’t be like that. By then, I would be dead.
“What do I do?” I asked the darkness. This time, there was no Zachary to talk to.
I wanted to save him. Wanted to be the one to change things. Maybe they would find the cure with my body. Maybe they could cure everyone with my body. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Am I certain of anything anymore?
After thinking, I realized I was.
I was certain that I would lay on that table, that shining table. I would. I had to.
The fluid was poured into a syringe, clear, but deadly. I watched, though I was trying not to, as the doctor grasped my wrist, smooth, firm, certain. I wanted to turn away, as the syringe was slipped, painlessly into my wrist. But I watched as the fluid was emptied into my arm.
And then there was a solid blackness. Simply black. One of the only things that had ever been simple. And then the blackness was everything.
Children pranced about the streets lined with brick and cement. Ivory colored and new, the children danced over the smooth new path.Their parents smiled and let them dance. Below their dancing feet was a plaque, gold and silver, words written in every color on the gold.
“Here We Thank Angela Palmer—The Savior of Every Soul, The Breath Of Every Life, The Woman Who Saved The Human Race; The World.”
A soft voice.
A girl approached, blonde hair curled about her pale face. Blue eyes gazed back. She was small, childish, as was the girl she approached. The girl with mousy brown hair, thin and soft, her eyes small and dark.
The brown-haired girl, Angela, stood, and smiled at the blonde-haired one. An embrace, and then Angela was gazing back down at the world below.
A man, in his late twenties, getting off a bus at a small, crumbling apartment building with a stoop smudged with smoke stains and bird droppings. He walked the stairs slowly, and then approached the apartment. He cracked the door open, still uninhabited. Still unknown.
He sat on the floor in the small bedroom, beside the bunk bed, and gazed at the pictures on the bulletin board. One picture in particular, of a girl with thin brown hair, small dark eyes, and a thin face. She was smiling before a gray background. A school picture.
He lay down on the rough carpet floor and imagined that girl, again, as he had many times.
The girl looked up from her place in the clouds.
“Zachary.” She whispered.