The world belonged to the birds again. The skies were theirs, and theirs alone. The trees, the fields, were gathering places of the winged, those without now imprisoned in the cages they had once called their homes. Airports became giant mausoleums, the frozen escalators and vacant terminals housed in sheets of plastic, the giant inventions of man-made genius relinquished to the rain and the rust. What had taken years to build, had only taken days to abandon, once the infection had been announced. The horizons were reduced to the scale of front yards or less, and the sky to the plaster ceilings of houses. The stars were better off forgotten.
Jessie watched some birds hop from limb to limb, flutter down to the tall grass of the yard and peck at the ground, sometimes coming up with some insect or grub, which they quickly gobbled. There was a hole in one of the viral seals over the living room window, which her father had not fixed, and probably wouldn't. He refused to step outside. She marveled at how the birds seemed oblivious to the danger of airborne illness, their small brains incapable of understanding fear, their black eyes empty of emotion. She wished she was like that. A small circle of sunlight framed her eye, shining in through the hole, as she sat and stared out at the bright golds and blues of a world she was starting to feel like an alien in. She realized she couldn't remember what fresh air tasted like. Absentmindedly, she fingered the Clear Card that dangled from the collar of her shirt. This was the requirement of all citizens now, and she had worn it so long, it seemed like a part of her. The two wires attached to the circuitry of its back trailed under her shirt, ending in sticky receptors, one going over the heart, and the other placed behind the ear. Anyone exposed to the virus and infected, would be alerted immediately by their Clear Card, as it would change from white to red, and an alarm would emit from its nano-speakers. She had only ever seen this once. It was a memory she longed to forget.
"Any news on the Wire?" her father asked, strolling into the room. She could smell him before she saw him; he hadn't changed clothes in five days now. The power had only come back on a couple of hours before, the refrigerator thrumming with energy, but it was not to be trusted, as they had both learned. It had been a hard winter. It was cold.
"The network is still down."
"God damn it! How are we supposed to order supplies, or know what's happening out there, if they can't keep anything working? This country has gone to hell. Straight to hell."
Three weeks after the infection was made public, the government announced it was taking complete control of the media, and everything else, as they deemed this was the only way to save the country, and perhaps the world. The borders were sealed off. The Clear Card program was announced, along with martial law. As soon as all the packets were mailed out, anyone caught without their card was to be shot on sight. Every channel on television was the same stream of information scrolling from bottom to top. All citizens were told to remain in their homes, and to use the anti-viral kits to help protect themselves against possible infection, until the outbreak of the disease was contained. The last thing Jessie remembered seeing on the news before the government takeover still haunted her dreams. It was a a news update about the new virus, which had been dubbed the "twilight killer," as anyone that contracted it would never see the sun rise again. The virus was a mutated strand of AIDS, they said. It attacked the immune system so rapidly that an infected person's body was open to any and all invading organisms. By the tenth hour, it was attacking the central nervous system and shutting down bodily organs. The fatality rate of those infected was one hundred percent. There had been no survivors.
She remembered the shot of the news crew touring an overcrowded hospital, one of the walls covered in splotches of what looked to be bloody vomit. She remembered how the bodies were stacked in the rooms so high, they had started stacking them along the walls of the corridors, pasty limp arms and legs tangled in piles, blotchy pink spots on the flesh of some, swollen lips and eyes snarled in rigor-mortis stares of eternal pain.
Stay inside, they said. Do not talk to strangers, they said. DO NOT approach someone without seeing their Clear Card, they said. Use the internet to order supplies, they said. We will protect you, they said. This will be over soon, they said.
That had been a year and a half ago. Access to the internet had been limited as well, only to government sanctioned sites, for supplies and information. Before they had cut off the outside world, the conspiracy theories were already circulating: this was a government screw up, this was a biological weapon gone wrong, this was an attempt to kill off the lower class. No one knew anything for a certainty. It all happened too fast.
"How much firewood do we have left?"
Her father, whose name was Bill, was already looking for a drink. He had to have just woken up. There was dried spit or puke in his beard. His hands shook as he brushed some plastic cups off the counter to the floor, where they skittered like weightless bumper cars full of noise. He found one that appeared to be less filthy, and fished the spilled bottle of whiskey off the kitchen tile. It still contained about a glass worth of liquid, sloshing and clinking as he set it down.
"I don't know, maybe enough for two more fires."
Outside, a deer had wondered into the yard, and stood, chewing some weeds in its mouth thoughtfully. It was beautiful. She could see its breath steaming from its large nostrils.
"Two more fires ... well, what do you think, Jessie? Is that going to be enough?"
Something startled the deer, and it bolted. Its ears twitched, and its head jerked around as if pulled by a rope, and then it was gone, bits of dead grass and dirt flying through the air where it was standing moments earlier. Just then, she realized she could hear an engine. Her father heard it too.
"Shit! The supply truck! Get your mask on right now!"
Jessie jumped to her feet and grabbed her face-mask off a hook by the front door. It was a specialized mask made to filter viruses, covering the face in a thick, clear plastic shield that suctioned at the edges with black rubber against the flesh of the wearer. At its bottom, near the mouth, were three large filtration devices, that hissed and sucked with each breath. It was equipped with an internal mic, and a set of nano-speakers, so communication wasn't hindered when wearing it.
Bill chugged the remainder of the bottle of whiskey, some spilling out of his mouth and dribbling down his beard, and fled back through the room, his pink bathrobe fluttering behind him like a cape, strands of his long graying hair sticking to his face and forehead. His eyes were wide with determined energy. Jessie sat back down and watched through the hole in the window as a dark green military truck pulled up into the driveway. Two men dressed in fatigues got out. They wore the same type of masks, their Clear Cards flashing in the sunlight as they jostled about. Large black rifles were slung over their shoulders. One stood watch while the other retrieved two boxes from the back of the truck, and they walked across the yard to the house, just out of her view. There were three loud thuds on the door, the dishes in a nearby cabinet tinkling as the wall shuddered.
Bill emerged from the hallway with his face-mask and wearing a pair of boots. He carried a shotgun. His beard frayed out comically around the edges of the mask like the mane of a lion.
"Who is it?" he shouted through the door. The filters were struggling to keep pace with his rapid breathing, the lower section of his mask repeatedly fogging up and clearing.
"You know who it is, sir. We have your supplies for the month," a patient voice responded, the microphone catching a brief hiss of the filter before shutting off.
"Okay, okay. Hold up your Clear Cards so I can see them."
He stepped forward and slid back a self-made slot he had installed in the door, bright light flooding into the dim room. The soldiers complied and lifted their cards closer to the opening, so that Bill could see they were free of infection. The cards were still white.
Jessie was trying to make out the name on the breast of one of the soldiers, who kept stepping in and out of her range of vision, when movement out of the corner of her eye brought her attention back to the truck in the drive. She was astonished to see a young boy, barely clothed, climbing out from under the vehicle. He looked a couple years younger than her, maybe 14. He wore a dirty pair of jeans, one knee ripped open, had only socks on his feet, and a long-sleeved shirt stained with what could have been blood. She couldn't see a Clear Card on him. He wasn't wearing a mask either. She held her breath as he looked nervously toward the house, his light brown hair blowing back in the breeze, and then he snuck around back, out of her view. She glanced over at her father, who was fumbling with the twelve locks he had placed on the door. No one else had seen him.
The last lock clicked into place as her father's shaking fingers twisted the knob, his long nails crusted with grime. He opened the door and stepped back, making sure the soldiers could see he carried a gun, but wasn't holding it in a hostile manner, having it pointed at the ceiling. Bits of dust danced in the light cast from the doorway, two long shadows draped over Bill, as the soldiers entered and the first one set the boxes on the floor.
"Clear Cards check."
"Clear Cards check," the second one repeated. Jessie could see now their names were Harris and Kamp. They looked from her father to her with scrutinizing eyes, shielded beneath the reflective glare of their masks. The room was silent for a moment except for the hiss-click sounds of their breathing.
Her father stumbled over to the boxes and fell to his knees to rip them open, dropping the gun by his side with clunky sounds onto the hardwood. He tore the tape from the first box, and brought out handfuls of shiny olive green packages, throwing them down in apparent disappointment. The second box contained more of the same.
"What ... what is this?"
Even through the metallic filter of the microphone and speakers, his voice dripped with disdain.
"MRE's. Powdered milk, and powdered fruit drinks. Enough for two months."
"Wait, where's what I ordered?"
"The supplies of alcohol and other luxuries have grown thin. We will now supply what we have available. Sorry for the inconvenience. Here is a referendum explaining the change."
He handed Bill a sheet of paper. He stared at it, not reading it. They turned to leave then.
"Wait! What's going on out there? Tell us something! When will the internet be up again? When will the television stream come back on? Has the virus been stopped?"
Bill clamored forward, reaching as if to grab the rear soldier's leg, yet knowing better, his hand pausing in mid-air, his fingers curling around nothing. He dropped the sheet of paper, which spiraled on a current of air and glided to a stop on the floor. They stopped and looked at each other for a moment in silence, then the second soldier, named Kamp, shook his head.
"That information is classified, sir. Just be thankful that you and your daughter are alive."
They continued out the door and across the yard to the truck, their footsteps becoming more hollow on the boards of the porch before they stepped off into the grass, leaving them to the quiet ambience of their house. Jessie stood up and closed the door, wondering if the soldiers would see the young boy, or if he had found a place to hide. She was curious about him, it being well over a year since she had seen another person near her own age. Her father was crying. He fell to the floor amid the packages of dried foods and sobbed, his throaty moans sounding strangely robotic amplified from inside the mask, as outside the truck's engine whirred to life and slowly faded, receding into the distance. Jessie sat with her back against the door and watched her father with pity in her eyes. This was a hard world to live in. She wondered how things would be different if her mother had lived. Maybe it would have been easier. Maybe her father would have retained more of his dignity, not succumbing to the darkest side of himself: a lazy coward, hiding from memories behind a wall of empty bottles, asking her to do things no man should ask of his daughter.
The memory was so vivid, the last time she heard her mother's voice:
See, honey, see, there's nothing to be afraid of! The air can't hurt us! They've lied to us! They've been lying all this time!
Baby, no, come back inside please, you're scaring Jessie.
You come out here! And take those silly masks off! Let's go for a walk like we used to!
Baby, no, no, baby, please, do you hear that? Your Clear Card is alarming! You've infected yourself! Why won't you listen to me?
I'm not sick though! I feel fine!
You're NOT FINE! You're infected! You have to take the pill now. You have to kill yourself! Do you want to kill us too? Do you want your daughter to die?
I'm not killing anybody! Can't you see, they want this to happen! They want us to fear!
PLEASE, DON'T MAKE ME DO THIS!
Jessie shivered, and tried to shrug the images away. That night haunted her. It seemed so long ago now. She wondered how long the boy outside had been without his mask. She wondered if he was infected. Her mother's mask was still in the other room, shoved in a box beneath some blankets. She would have to wait until her father was asleep to find it. He would want to know what she was doing.
"Dad. I'm going to go gather some more wood. Do you hear me?"
For a moment he didn't respond, just laid with his head on the floor, his fingers twitching.
She stood up and let herself out.
The air was chilly on her bare arms, and she hugged herself to retain some warmth, the wind whipping her hair back and forth. In her haste to get outside and check on the boy, she had forgotten that spring hadn't fully arrived, which was why they still needed firewood, despite February being nearly over. She scolded herself, knowing that the boy was probably long gone by now anyway, but her curiosity would not leave her alone until she was sure of it. Something told her that he hung around, if for nothing else than the chance to see if any food could be pilfered. Wondering if he could be dangerous, she looked for something to use for a makeshift weapon, and found a broken chunk of a brick near the edge of the porch. She cupped it into her palm, the rock cold, biting the tender skin. She held it by her right leg as she stepped past the corner of the house and eased her way to the back yard. The grass was overgrown and dry, swishing against her knees and the fabric of her jeans.
There was a shed out there behind the house, an old metal thing, not much bigger than a doghouse, where her father stored a mower that he hadn't used in forever, and other tools. To the left of the shed was a large log they had found, and used for a chopping block. There were chunks of wood scattered all about, some stacked against the outer wall of the shed, but most thrown haphazard in its general vicinity. The grass here was more matted, from their frequent trekking to and from, and working in the area. She scanned over the landscape, searching for any trace of the boy, finding nothing. But suddenly she was sure he was here; she could sense him watching her. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled with unease. She saw a thick stick of wood, and dropped the brick in favor of it, its heft feeling more threatening, her hand barely fitting around its circumference, and its length, about right for a good club. The air felt thick, although it wasn't, the wind seemed to die. Suddenly, every step she took seemed as loud as thunder, as the grass crunched under her weight. She cringed, and noticed that the axe was missing from the log. The boy could be anywhere, crouched in the tall weeds, just behind the shed, maybe out a little further where the trees started. They were miles from any town or city here, which was a blessing, unless you needed a doctor. She realized the boy had the advantage, and decided to call out to him before he snuck up on her and killed her out of desperation.
"Hey, boy!" she said, hoping her father couldn't hear her inside. "Hey, it's okay. I don't want to hurt you. Come out."
Nothing answered. The bare limbs of the trees swayed back and forth in the distance. She could hear their wood creaking. A group of birds took flight from some branches, causing a flurry of sounds as their wings beat the air, and claws loosed themselves from bark.
"Boy! Trust me! You're better off with me than my father, so come out!"
For a moment, she thought it was pointless. The boy would never trust her. Why would he? Why trust anyone in this world? But then he revealed himself, standing up from the grass, just a few feet from where the matted path ended. He held the axe stiffly, his lips quivering with cold, his cheeks flushed red from wind.
"I'm not sick," he said. "Don't kill me."
She stood, uncertain of how to react. Her chest felt tight with anxiousness and a curious excitement that bordered on panic. She looked back at the house, and turned again to the boy, hoping against all hope that her father was passed out. This was insanity. One of the rules was, don't talk to strangers. Breaking the rules was a sure way to get yourself killed. But this boy looked innocent, and alone. He was terrified. You could see it in his eyes.
She lowered her stick to show she wasn't interested in attacking him.
"Don't kill me neither. What's your name?"
"Carl. Carl McClellan."
He stared at her. His eyes looked dark grey, the color of the sky.
"Why are you here? Where's your family?"
"Why should I tell you? You won't believe me."
"Yes, I will. I promise."
"Fine. Everybody's dead. The whole town. Soldiers killed them."
"What? Why? The infection?"
His face contorted for an instant with what could have been anger. He shook his head like he was disgusted.
"Infection? There ain't no infection. That's bullshit. We figured it out. That's why they killed us."
"What are you talking about? If you're not infected, where's your Clear Card?"
"Doesn't matter. They don't do anything. My dad figured it out. We turned all of our cards red about a week ago now."
Jessie knew that a red card meant you were dead. Twelve hours was all you had. The cards came with cyanide capsules so the infected could take their own lives instead of infecting others. Her mother refused to do that. Her father had done what he had to, to save their lives. Believing otherwise was ...
"It's the truth. Check the back of the card. Look at the circuits. Then look at the inside of your mask. There's a similar looking device in there. It's a sensor. The card knows if you go outside without a mask. It's set to a timer. My father seemed to think it's set to two minutes. You don't believe me? Test it out. Shut your card outside the door when you go back inside. There's enough slack in the wires to do it. Take your mask off and push it away from you, so it can't sense it near you. Then all you have to do is wait."
"But that's stupid. Why would they tell us there's a virus? What about all the people that died?"
See, honey, see, there's nothing to be afraid of! The air can't hurt us! They've lied to us!
"What about them? Look, I'm hungry and I'm cold, I don't care if you believe me, but are you going to help me or not?"
Jessie looked around, her eyes not focusing on anything, confusion scrambling her thoughts. This was too much to take at once. She needed some time to think.
"Okay, look, I gotta take some wood inside. There's no way for me to get anything out to you in the day, unless my father passes out, but we're almost out of liquor, so I don't know when he will. Maybe tonight I can get you something to eat, and some more clothes, or a blanket. Until then, I suggest you hide in the shed. He won't find you. He never comes out here anymore."
He nodded, but didn't drop the axe. She supposed that was okay. She didn't need it. Carl walked over to the shed and opened the door. Its hinges creaked loudly. He stood there and watched her.
"It's okay. You can trust me."
"No I can't," he said, and stepped into the shed. A moment later the door closed.
Jessie busied herself by gathering some more chunks of wood into the crook of her arm. She had four or five pieces, enough for a fire, and just under the limit of weight she could carry at once. What the boy Carl had said was festering in her brain like a bad pimple under the skin. She tried to not think about it, but whether she wanted to or not, it was in there, growing under the surface, and eventually it would come out. There were too many repercussions of accepting it at this point. If it were true, she might lose her mind thinking about them. From the knocks on the door late at night, Jessie, I need you to be your mother for me, just one more time. To the discharged shell casing Bill wore around his neck as a reminder. To the countless nights she had cried herself asleep, thinking of taking the cyanide pill, wondering if any of the neighbors down the road were still alive, wondering if she could make it to them, or if they would shoot her. If it were all for nothing, she would need to know why. She would demand an answer from the heavens. But she knew she wouldn't get one. That information was classified.
She clambered her way back into the house with the faggots in her arms. Her father had moved from the floor, but she couldn't hear him moving around in the back. He had turned the TV on, a channel of static filling the room with electric light. She squatted and dropped the wood by their fireplace, trying to make as little noise as possible. The embers of the last fire were still exuding a red glow and a warmth that felt good against her skin. She set a log into the bed of coals, which sent up some red sparks and smoke, metallic echoes emanating from the stone and log grill as its weight settled. Sitting back on her knees, she reached up and flipped two switches beneath her jawline, which released the suction of the mask with a hiss. Immediately the comforting aroma of the wood fire filled her nose as she removed the thing from her face.
Look inside the mask, the boy had said.
She held it in the orange glow of the fire and turned it in her hands, examining the insides. The new log crackled as it heated up. Around the lip of the rubber edge, the mask was made of black and green plastic, which formed the seam that the clear shield fit into. On one of these edges there was a cloth tag with hieroglyphs picturing how to wear it stitched into the fabric. She flipped this over with her finger and underneath it there was a circular piece of hard green plastic that looked like a piece from a computer circuitry board. There was a small red light that blipped off and on in the center of the circuitry. She would have never seen this if she had not been told to look for it. She had never had a reason to. Her throat was dry as she was realizing something. Feeling like she was having an out of body experience, she unclipped the Clear Card from her collar and looked at the back side of it. In the middle of the card was the same sort of circular piece of circuitry, that she had looked at a thousand times. There was a small red light, blipping off and on. She held it beside the mask and watched with dawning terror as the light on the mask and the one on the card blinked in and out, in perfect sync.
Well, this doesn't prove anything, she thought, clipping the card back to her collar.
But what if he's telling the truth?
She didn't have an answer to that. Her father would never accept it if it were true. It would push him the rest the way off the cliff he had slowly been descending on his own. Who knows what would happen when he reached the bottom. She stood up and walked down the hallway. The bathroom door was open a crack. She tried to push it the rest of the way open, but something was in the way. She pushed harder, and was able to move the obstruction in a bit, so she could squeeze her head in. It was Bill. His mask was in the sink, and the medicine cabinet was swung open. Pill bottles littered the floor and sink, along with other items, a razor, some q-tips, etc. One prescription bottle was on the edge of the sink with its lid missing. She picked it up and read the label: hydrocodone. Some old pain pills from when her mother had her wisdom teeth removed. There looked to be about fifteen of the white tablets in the bottle. She kicked his leg. He moaned and rolled on his side, pulling his knees up. Just sleeping. What would he do when these pain pills were gone? Jessie feared this question had the same answer as the one about reaching bottom, because they were both the same. The guilt was eating him alive.
Knowing she wasn't going to get a better opportunity than this, she set the bottle back on the sink and walked to her bedroom, to start looking for things to give Carl. She rummaged through her closet and found an old blanket and a couple of sweaters, a jacket that she never wore, and some gloves. She put a coat on and packed the bundle of clothes to the living room. Retrieving it from the floor by the fire, she put her mask back over her face, locking the switches under her jaw back into place, and taking a deep breath of the filtered air.
The air can't hurt us! They've lied to us!
This is crazy, she thought.
Just then the power flickered and went back out, encasing the room in a dimness that seemed to match an absence of hope. The whole world was falling apart. Humans were back on par with the animals now, just struggling to survive, their technologies just useless relics to be eaten by the dust. She wondered what future generations would think of the multitudes of junk they would leave behind. She wondered how all of this could possibly be a lie.
She picked up two of the olive green packages and set them on top of the clothes, wrapping it all up in the blanket. Then she remembered water, and found an empty two liter to fill with it from the tap. Amazingly, the water had never stopped working. She supposed the pipes were more durable than power lines. Screwing the lid on, she added the bottle of water to the bundle, and picked it all up in her arms. As quietly as she could, she opened the door and went back outside. The sun was starting to go down, and a light drizzle of rain was falling.
She made her way to the shed and knocked on the door. Just when she was sure that the boy must have left, the door opened. Carl's face was squinty, as if he had been asleep, or maybe it was just his eyes not adjusted to the light. The axe was clutched firmly in his right hand.
"Here, I brought you some warmer clothes, a jacket and gloves too. There's a couple of army meals and a bottle of water. It's all we got right now, unless you got a can opener."
He took the bundle from her arms and tossed it in the dingy concrete of the floor. Watching her, he squatted over it, sorting through it roughly. He pulled out the bottle of water, uncapped it, started to take a drink, and stopped.
"You drink first."
He thrust it toward her.
"I'm not taking this mask off. I didn't poison you. You just have to trust me."
He looked at her for a moment with suspicious eyes, then shrugged. Putting the bottle to his lips, he took four or five generous drinks, seeming to savor the liquid. Then he tore open one of the MRE's, and ripped into a package of cookies, devouring them as though they were the last cookies on the planet. He spilled crumbs everywhere, smeared some chocolate on his cheek, but didn't seem concerned about appearances.
"So, you don't believe me. Just like I thought," he said after he swallowed a cookie, and opened the entree, which was beef stew. He squeezed it directly into his mouth, chewing fast and ravenous.
"I don't know what I believe yet. I saw the sensors. You're right about them being the same. But that doesn't prove what you say. How long have you been without your mask?"
He swallowed a bite, "I don't know. Six days maybe."
That was almost impossible to believe. Surely he hadn't been outside all that time. He showed no signs of sickness though. Jessie wondered if maybe he had a natural immunity to the virus.
"Why didn't you test the card like I said?"
"I'm not sure. Even if it's like you say, my dad will never believe it. If he saw my card was red, he'd kill me. I've seen him do it before."
"So, test his card too. You said he's passed out?"
"So, test the card. When he wakes up, you can explain it to him."
"I don't know, Carl. You don't know my father."
"Well, it's either do that, or live in fear forever. There's nothing to be afraid of. The virus is the boogeyman. It's all some lie they made up to control us. I aim to find out why."
"You sound like my mom."
"Where is she?"
"She's dead. My father shot her when she became infected and wouldn't take the pill."
"He didn't show up."
They sat in silence for a while. Carl finished his meal, and belched loudly, making them both laugh nervously. It was completely dark now.
"I gotta get back inside before he wakes up."
"Thanks for the food and the clothes."
"No problem. Stay warm, and I'll check ..."
Jessie had stood up and was about to shut the door, waving goodnight to Carl, when the rifle report deafened her, and Carl's face exploded like a pumpkin filled with salsa. She fell back from the door, its metal frame shivering, as she stumbled, collapsing to the ground, watching in slow motion as Carl's now lifeless body slumped over, blood pumping through the open mess of his skull in spurts, his legs jerking in death. She rolled over and saw the silhouette of her father stepping out of the shadows. She was screaming, but couldn't hear herself, the filters of her mask not being able to stop the fog from clouding the faceplate. Bill grabbed her savagely by the wrist and started dragging her toward the house.
"NO! NO! NO!" she shrieked over and over, flailing her arms and legs frantically, trying to break free. Her father's hand was like a steel cable cinched tight on her wrist.
They reached the house and Bill jerked her to her feet, pulled her up the stairs, and slammed her against the door hard enough to knock the wind out of her. He clamped his vice-like grip around her neck, barely leaving her room to breathe.
"You fucking bitch. How dare you try to hide that infected bastard on my property. If you weren't my daughter you would be dead, you hear me? Dead. First your mother tries to kill us, and now you? I can't believe this."
Jessie could barely breathe, was starting to see dots in her vision. The world was starting to feel far away, her limbs were starting to feel like feathers.
"You're my daughter, I love you. Why would you do this to us? I was going to have you be special to me tonight, like your mother used to. I know you like that."
He stroked the barrel of the gun up between her legs, pressing himself closer to her, sliding his hand from her neck to her left breast and squeezing it hard through her bra. She was able to get in a gasping breath, filling her limbs with tingling strength just before she fainted. Before he had a chance to grab her again, she drove her knee as hard as she could into his groin.
"Murderer!" she screamed, "Monster! Carl ..."
She gripped the underside of his mask as he doubled over in pain.
"... wasn't ..."
She flipped the switches that held the suction.
She jerked the mask off his face and hurled it into the night. He dropped the gun in panic and stumbled backwards, slapping his hands over his mouth and nose screaming. As he scrambled about the yard, searching hopelessly for his mask with one hand in the grass and the other over his mouth, Jessie picked up the rifle and held it at her side, pointed in his general direction. She waited to see how long it took his card to turn, tears streaming down her face and collecting inside the mask by her chin in a tiny pool. About two minutes later, she could see his card illuminate with the LED red glow, and the familiar BEEP BEEP BEEP started emanating from the nano-speakers, signaling the wearer was infected. Bill stopped looking for the mask, and just sat on his knees in the yard, his head down, sobbing.
"Now, you're infected," she said, choking back her own tears. "You have to take the pill, or I swear, I'll kill you."
"You've never shot a gun. You couldn't shoot me."
"I don't think it's that hard to figure out."
"It doesn't matter, sweetheart. I'm dead. You killed me either way."
"No, you killed yourself."
"I can't help the world we live in, baby. I've done the best I know how. I've tried to keep us safe. What happened with your mom was the first night I died. I've tried my best to forget it, to be numb, but I just can't. The first time I felt lonely enough to come to your room was my second death. I've been sick a long time I guess. This is the third and final time I must die."
He was taking the card from his collar, breaking it in half, so the pill spilled out into his hands. The two halves dropped at his knees, the light dying from them, but the alarm still trying weakly to sound. Suddenly, Jessie realized that maybe the monster he had become wasn't entirely his fault. She realized the longer people lived in a world like this, the less human they would be. Eventually, at the end, only monsters would remain. She felt a deep-seated pity for him; despite everything that had happened, he was still her father, still a part of her.
"Wait, Daddy, don't. Carl wasn't sick. He hadn't had his mask for over a week. If you would have asked me first I would have told you. He said the cards were some kind of trick, there really isn't a virus. The government did this to control us or something. Don't take the pill. Wait and see if you get sick first."
He gazed at her for a moment with the purest look of love he had ever given her, fresh tears welling up in his eyes.
"Huh," he said, "when you're lonely enough, you'll believe anything."
He threw the pill into his mouth, tossed his head back and swallowed hard, smiling at her even as he was breathing his last breath, the tears in his eyes spilling over onto his cheeks. The smile faded in an instant and his face twisted in anguish. His mouth filled with white foam, and his eyes rolled back in his head, like he was choking. He fell over on the ground, his body shaking in a convulsion. Then he was still.
Jessie slid down the door and sat with her legs out in front of her, the gun falling from her hands with a rattling clunk sound against the boards of the porch. She cried uncontrollably, her hands shaking as they reached up and flipped the switches under her mask. It hissed, letting the fresh air into her nose, which smelled of dry grass and cold. She pulled the mask off and let it drop, taking a deep breath, the first breath of fresh air she had tasted in over a year. It tasted like freedom and the unknown. She closed her eyes and listened as the rain started to fall again, in heavier drops that rattled like marbles on the tin roof of the shed out back, and a million fingers tapping on the roof over her head. When her Clear Card changed, and the BEEP BEEP BEEP started playing near her heart, as if alarming because her heart itself was broken and not the world, she ripped it from her shirt, tearing the sensors from her chest and ear, and threw it into the yard, where it glowed like an alien bug. She stared into the darkness until she started to doze, her body overwhelmed with shock, and then she slept.
When she woke up, several hours later, it was still dark. She couldn't decide if she was happy or sad to still be alive, and to not feel sick, coming to the conclusion that it didn't really matter. She also decided she had to get out of there. Parked in their driveway was an old Ford Taurus that Bill had made her start every Sunday since the government announced no one was allowed to drive. He said, "It's better to be safe than sorry, since we live so far from any city. Wouldn't want the engine to be seized up if we had an emergency and needed to get help."
She fetched the keys from the kitchen drawer, put on a better pair of pants and shoes, and then headed out. She stopped by her father's corpse and removed the necklace from around his head, the one with the shell casing that came from the rifle when he shot his wife. She placed it over her own head, where it hung around her neck like a morbid locket, a two-ounce reminder that nearly dragged her father into his grave. She kissed his forehead and left him in the grass to rot. She was too young to dig graves.
The car started on the second try. She had never driven before, other than a few times sitting on her father's lap when she was younger, which really didn't count, but since no other cars should be on the road, she didn't worry too much about causing any wrecks. She stutter stopped a couple of times pulling out of the drive, having to acquaint herself with the gentle pressure needed to accelerate, but soon she got the hang of it and was speeding along nicely. She had no idea where she was going, but she figured she would know it when she arrived.
After about thirty minutes, having passed a couple of residential areas that appeared as dead as ghost towns, she started to wonder if more communities had been wiped out like the town that Carl had described, everyone murdered by soldiers because they asked too many questions. The rain had stopped and she thought she could see the dead shell of the city against the horizon, all the black buildings cut out of the skyline, eerily devoid of the lights that used to shine like stars. She wondered if she would encounter any roadblocks, or if, by this point, there was any need for such precautions. If she did come across a roadblock, she assumed they would just shoot her, since she wasn't wearing her Clear Card any more. But there were no road blocks.
Instead, the sun broke the darkness at the edge of the sky, spilling orange light into the milky purplish horizon. Jessie had no idea where she was. She had gotten lost, driving with the windows down, sucking in the hard breeze that made her eyes water with its chill, letting her hand float in the currents of air until it was numb. She had passed a sign for a place called Cottontown about forty minutes earlier. There had been a forested area, where her headlights seemed to catch the eerie glows of eyes around every curve. She had a crazy thought that some of those eyes might have belonged to people, maybe a group of savages, living off the land, hiding from the military and the bloodshed. That area had thinned out and there were open fields again, along with some houses here and there by the roadside. She knew that driving in the daylight would pose a greater risk to her, so she had to find a place to hide for the day. The number of houses by the road began to increase, so she knew she was coming up on another town. Before she got to it, she found a driveway that lead to a burned out house, some of its blackened walls still standing around piles of ash and soot-covered junk, broken shards of darkened glass clinging to the bottom halves of window frames. She pulled the car into the drive of that house, and drove around to its back side.
The engine ticked rhythmically as it cooled, while she sat in the driver seat of the car, listening to it and the soft jingle of the keys swinging from where she had twisted them into the off position. It was going to be a warm day, she could tell, as the sun was already warming her face and arms through the glass of the windshield. It felt nice. Suddenly she realized, that for the first time in what seemed like eternity, she wasn't afraid. She looked about her, the sun starbursting between the trees, the calm of shadows growing and shrinking, the muffled sounds of birds starting to sing, and she felt a strange elation in her that wanted to swell like a helium balloon in her heart. She began to cry, realizing that, after all she had been through, she had survived, surpassing her parents, and countless others that she would never know. But her tears were not those of hopelessness that had become the common denominator of her lonely nights. She felt hope again.
Wiping tears from her face, she opened the car door and stepped out into the tall grass of the unkempt yard, still wet with rain or dew. She crouched in it, running her hand along the tips of the weeds and leaves of grass, cherishing the dampness of it, the reality of it. This world had not killed her yet. She wished Carl was with her. She wished he could share this moment. This feeling. So much fear had dominated everything for so long. Without it, she felt like a bird freed from a cage, unsure of where to fly, intimidated by so much sky. The birds singing from the trees seemed to be asking her to join them. They seemed to know the secret of the universe. She wished such a secret actually existed.
Standing, she strolled around and into the ruin of the burned house. It still smelled of smoke, and wet ash. There was a skeleton in the floor near one of the windows, burned in this effigy of memories and the possessions that used to represent a life. In what must have been the bedroom, she kicked over some junk and found half a picture frame still intact, with a partially visible photograph in it. She picked this up and rubbed her palm across the glass, removing a bit of the gray soot. There were two people in the photo. A man and a young boy. Both were smiling like they might live forever. They didn't. She dropped the frame and the remaining glass shattered, causing a bird that was roosting in one of the other sections of the house to take flight with a flutter of wings and noise. She sighed. Her stomach rumbled with the familiar pangs of hunger.
Should have brought some MRE's with me. Now what am I going to do for food?
She decided to chance walking the rest of the way into town, thinking maybe one of the closed convenience stores or other establishments, might still have some supplies in it. She took one last look around the charred remains of the home, a sadness creeping around the fringe of a thought she couldn't quite grasp, about the truth of an unnecessary emptiness, something that felt like a hole in the world, and then she stepped back into the light of the morning.
She felt completely exposed and vulnerable as she made her way into the center of the community, although she never saw one hint of human life other than her own. She walked always within sight of the highway, listening intently for any sounds of distant motors that might be military trucks or worse. But she heard nothing except wind and things blown by wind. She felt like the lone survivor at the end of the world, but it was a peaceful loneliness. The sun continued to warm the air, making it feel like true spring for the first time that year, and sweat gathered on her forehead, which she mopped repeatedly with the back of her hand.
In town, she came upon a section of dark store fronts and a gas station, having left the grass of the ditches and fields for the sidewalk some time ago. There was a store called Uncle Sam's that looked promising, and the large front window was broken, allowing for easy access. She crawled through it, careful to avoid the glass, and wandered the silent aisles. It was a general store of sorts, seeming to have a bit of everything. There was a camping supply aisle, from which she selected a backpack, removing the tag out of habit more than anything. She stumbled across an aisle of canned goods and grabbed several cans of pasta and some vegetables, the ones with the pull tab tops, as she didn't have a can opener. When she found some potato chips, she tore a bag open immediately, and stuffed her mouth full of them, the salt stinging her chapped lips in a delicious way. They were only slightly stale, a marvel of man-made preservatives and vacuum sealing. She selected several single serve packages and put them in the bag, licking her fingers in between bites. The drink aisle was next and she tore a bottle of water free from the plastic rings of a six pack, opened it swiftly, and took several deep gulps. She put the remaining five bottles in the pack, and then selected two bottles of soda as well. Might as well live life to the fullest while it was still there to live. The pack was heavy by this point, so she slung it over her shoulder, thinking that would be enough for a little while at least.
As she was turning to leave, she saw a cat crouched by the end of the aisle, watching her. It was thin and gray, its eyes seemingly full of fear and curiosity at the same time. Smiling, she crouched and held out her hand to it.
"Hey, buddy," she whispered, "come here. Come on, I won't hurt you."
She made clicking noises with her tongue against the roof of her mouth, trying to lure the animal to her, using that sort of primal, instinctive level of communication, which seems to work between animals and people. The cat crept forward, staying low to the ground, and rubbed its nose against her outstretched fingers cautiously. Its nose was cold, but she could hear it purring loudly, as if it were happy to see her. She stroked the top of its head, and it meowed, looking up at her, seeming to become more comfortable with her presence.
"You're just as lost as I am, huh?"
She poured some of her water onto the tiles beside her, and the cat lapped at it, obviously thirsty.
"Poor guy. Let me see if I can find you some food too."
She wandered the store some more, the cat following behind her, meowing now and again in a pleading manner. There was an aisle with pet food, and she tore open one of the bags, spilling a mound of brown nuggets from the shelf, which scattered and bounced from the tiles every which way. The cat meowed and began to eat, crunching the morsels between his teeth, barely getting in gasps of breath between each bite.
"Not too fast, pal, you'll make yourself sick," she said, chuckling. She sat on the floor beside it, and ran her hand along its soft gray fur. She munched on some more potato chips herself, each of them seeming to enjoy the company of the other, in that silent way humans and pets seem to have, despite just meeting. After a while, the cat crawled into her lap, its purrs and the warmth of its body acting like a soothing drug on her consciousness, and they both dozed amid the forgotten necessities that used to consume human lives, the dim quiet of the store housing the ghosts of footsteps and a world that used to be.
When she awoke, the cat was gone, and it was much darker. She had slept the whole day away.
I must have been more tired than I realized, she thought, yawning as she stretched her arms and chest. Her back was stiff where it had been leaned against a shelf of dog food. Wishing the cat was still around so she could take it with her, she stood and made her way back to the front of the store, climbing back through the window, and she began the long walk back to the car. Without the sun, it was much colder, and she was shivering by the time she got back, anxious to get the engine running, and turn the heat on. She ate another quick meal of canned pasta and soda, feeling slightly bad about throwing the trash out into the grass by the burned down house, but not knowing what else to do with it, and then she started back down the road. Looking at her gas gauge, she still had nearly a third of a tank. When she ran out of gas, she figured that would be the end of the driving for this trip.
Nearly fifteen minutes after getting on the road again, she noticed there appeared to be another set of brake lights, glowing in the distance ahead of her. The red lights floated in the dark like a pair of evil eyes that hovered just above the ground. This piqued her curiosity, as there should be no vehicles on the road, other than perhaps military vehicles. She sped up so she could get closer. The closer she got to the vehicle, the more it looked like an average car. It definitely was not a military truck, like the ones that bring the supplies. Maybe this was someone like her, fleeing the disaster of a previous life, looking for a safe place. At the very least, it was someone also breaking the code of martial law, and driving while most people were sleeping, to avoid being seen. She had to follow them and see where they might lead her.
It wasn't much further that the car turned into a driveway that went up a hill. It seemed to go on forever. Jessie slowed down again to let the car get out in front of her some more. As she neared the top of the hill, she could see there was a large house, and most of its lights were on. There were many other cars already there, parked along the side of the driveway. Some of them were expensive. She saw two BMW's and a Mercedes, and a couple other nice-looking sedans that she didn't recognize. She found an open spot and pulled her car into it, thinking it might be best to walk up from this point, to get a look at what was going on. As she got out of the vehicle, she could hear orchestral music playing, and she thought she heard someone laughing.
Intrigued, she walked closer to the house. When she could see the front entrance, she saw a man standing outside dressed in a tuxedo, helping a woman out of a car. She wore a black dress that shimmered with sequins. Another man exited the driver side and walked around to meet her, while the tuxedoed valet bowed to them and got into the vehicle, presumably to park it. None of them were wearing masks, or Clear Cards that she could see. She eased closer still, careful to stay out of the line of sight of the second valet, who stood by the front door, and opened it to let the new guests inside. When the door was opened, the music was louder for a moment, and she could hear the familiar bustle of voices that she associated with a crowd of people having a good time. This was a party.
She got up next to one of the outside walls of the home, which was more like a mansion. The place was huge, with towering windows. She peeked in through one of such windows, into a darkened room, but beyond the doorway of that room was light, and a multitude of people, all dressed in expensive attire, tuxedos and elaborate night gowns. Every woman she saw was beautiful, and elegant, with slim perfect bodies, flawless skin and sparkling jewelry. The men were mostly handsome, with white, confident smiles and broad shoulders, although some were balding and a bit overweight. Some smoked cigars. Everyone was drinking. Wine from crystal goblets, or other drinks in short tumbler glasses. There were no soldiers here that she could see. No viral protection kits were being utilized. No one seemed worried that they might die at any moment. Everyone was smiling and chatting as though the world was a utopian society, and they had written its constitution. Jessie slowly realized that it was people like this who must have perpetuated the virus story onto the rest of the country. She started to feel angry. She wished she had brought one of her father's guns with her. But she hadn't. She didn't know what she could do in this situation, but she felt like she had to do something. After everything she had experienced over the past year and a half, this just wasn't right. She had never felt so powerless in her life, and yet, she had never felt more like trying to make something change, like knowing the ocean is too wide to cross on her own, but feeling with absolute certainty that she must swim to the other side.
Having a moment of inspiration, she reached up and tugged on the window. To her surprise, it opened easily, swinging outward, the silk lace curtain billowing into her face along with the noise of the festivities. She crawled into the room, the window being so large that she just had to swing her legs over the sill. The smell of smoke and perfumes was pungent. The music and laughter nauseated her. She suddenly wanted to burn this palace to the ground. Not knowing what she would do or say, she braced herself for anything, and walked through the dark room and entered through the doorway, into the light.
No one even noticed her. She walked among them, like a ghost. Some seemed to glance her way, and immediately averted their gaze, as if they were ashamed of her presence there, or refused to acknowledge that they had seen someone that didn't belong. She had never felt so alone in her life, and she was with more people than she had seen in what felt like eternity. The conversations were vacuous, about things that she didn't understand, or didn't care to understand. Snippets of their dialogue assaulted her ears:
"... more slaves than I know what to do with ..."
"... gasoline stock is recovering ..."
"...my wife loves the thing..."
"... I've never been happier ..."
"... army sergeant for a butler ..."
They sounded like groups of dogs barking at one another, trying to see who could bark the loudest. She began to feel frustrated, suffocated, invisible. She started to wonder if her father had killed her, and everything since was a bad dream. Maybe this was hell. Or heaven, and she was trapped in between worlds.
She started yelling at them.
"Hey!" she said.
"Hey, you! Look!" she pointed at herself.
"Can you see me? Am I alive?"
She jerked on someone's sleeve, who turned, saw her, and then quickly shuffled off into the crowd.
"What the fuck is wrong with you people?"
Determined to not be ignored, she strode to the serving table, shoved a large tray of glasses to the floor with a smashing timpani of clatter and shatter, and pulled herself up onto the tabletop to stand before them.
"Hey," she thought she heard a bartender say.
"HELLO!!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, waving her arms in the air. Finally, everyone seemed to stop what they were doing and look her way. The music even stopped, with a sudden bad note from the cellist. The room was dead quiet, all eyes fixed on her. For a moment she froze, her mind going blank, but then she reached up and touched the necklace hanging between her breasts, and it all flooded back. It poured out of her like an eruption of volcanic ash.
"You people make me sick! There's a world beyond these walls that's dying, and you drink your wine. Selfish assholes! You all know there isn't a virus! You've probably known this whole time! Do you have any idea what you've done? Do you have any idea how many lives you've taken? I've watched my mother die. I've seen my own father kill a young boy, and then kill himself, just yesterday! And for what? So you all can throw this party? WHY? Fuck you! You're the ones with a virus! You're the ones that need a cure! You're the ones that ..."
"Excuse me," a man said, raising his hand and stepping forward.
She stopped and looked at who had interrupted her rant. It was the handsome man that she had seen getting out of the car earlier. That seemed like an odd coincidence to her, but she was too thrown off by actually being spoken to, to pay it much thought. He stepped closer, walking out in front of the crowd of like-dressed individuals. She could hear the ice tinkling in his glass as he walked. Someone cleared their throat in the back.
"Might I ask your name?"
His eyes were the deepest blue she had ever seen. She found herself nervous meeting his gaze.
"Why do you want to know it?" her throat seemed much tighter than before, making the words harder to get out.
"Well, it seems only fair, since you seem to know so much about us," he said, motioning to the people behind him, "that we should know something about you."
His voice was deep and smooth, the voice of the river, the current that wore the edges of bed rocks to a glassy perfection.
"My name is Jessie."
"Jessie. My name is Richard. I'm very sorry for what has happened to your family, as I'm sure the rest of us here are. Why don't you come down from there so we can talk?"
He let her take his hand as she jumped down from the table.
"Jessie, do you know who I am?"
"Well, I'm the President of the United States."
Jessie looked up at him, confused. The last President she had remembered seeing was a black man. This man was most definitely not black, although his skin was slightly tanned. He looked like old drawings of a superhero she had seen in comic books years ago. He looked like an actor.
"You're not the President. I've seen him."
He chuckled and shook his head.
"See that man over there?"
He pointed at one of the balding men, a man so stocky he didn't seem to have a neck beneath the collar of his shirt.
"That's Hal. He's also the President."
"You're not making any sense. There's only one President of the United States. And he isn't here. Why don't you quit lying and tell me what's going on? Why aren't we getting sick?"
"Oh, Jessie. You're so young. I know you don't understand. But that man on the TV that you knew, he wasn't the President. He was more like our secretary. Well, ours among others. But that doesn't matter now. You're not getting sick, because the virus was effectively vaccinated about two months after it appeared. But we all decided we liked the country better this way, with everyone keeping to themselves, in their own houses, so we let them stay that way. By allowing the country to believe in the virus, we stopped all crime. There was no more talk of revolution in the streets. No more social unrest. This country became the ideal vision of peace. We saved it."
"But what about the rest of the world? Did they get the vaccine too?"
"Best not to worry about the rest of the world, love."
Jessie's head was spinning. She didn't know what to believe. This man seemed so genuine and kind, she was finding it hard to imagine him being anything but honest. His smile seemed to light a candle in her stomach.
"But ... but ... everyone thinks they will die if they breathe the air. Everyone is so scared. They're not free anymore. That's not peace."
"Sure it is, sweetheart."
"But so many people died. My mom. My dad killed her."
Richard tilted her head toward him, cupping her cheek in his palm. His breath smelled of alcohol and mints.
"My sweet, innocent child. We know you've been through a lot. I can see it in your eyes. That's why I want to save you, too. Let me adopt you. I'll accept you as part of my family, be able to provide you with all the things you never had. I'll make all your troubles seem like a distant nightmare, a dream that fades upon waking. You'll have all the love you can stand and never worry about anything, ever again."
Jessie couldn't believe this was happening. Tears streamed from her eyes. Her face felt hot. She could feel the attention of the room pressing in on them like a million pricks of needles on her skin. Her mind swam with uncertainty, a confusion that felt like some kind of intoxicant. Tension constricted her airway, made her throat feel incapable of speech, as if her tongue had forgotten how to work. Could she trust this man? If he told the truth, he allowed thousands, hell, maybe millions of people to die, and even more than that to live under the fear of a horrible lie. But here she stood, in a mansion, amid a group of people whose wardrobe probably was worth more than the house she grew up in, next to a man who smelled like a religious experience and had promised her more than she had ever believed possible. His eyes were deep pools begging for her baptism.
"I-I-I don't know what to say."
"Say you'll stay with me, Jessie. Do you really want to go back out there? To be alone? Let me protect you."
She looked into his eyes, and she knew he told the truth. She knew she had no choice.
The room erupted in applause, people cheering, loud clinking of toasts being raised, as Richard smiled broadly and raised her hand in his. Then, he took her cheeks in his palms and kissed her on the forehead. She felt a rush of exhilaration, as if she was suddenly drunk on the moment, feeding from the energy of the crowd.
"Quick, come with me. Let's get you cleaned up."
He whispered in her ear, and then led her by the hand, out of the room. People were clapping them on the back as they passed, amid exultations of, "Bravo," and "Well done." The music had started up again, a piece she thought she recognized as Mozart. They made their way to the other side of the hall and into a different room, where two soldiers were waiting for them. The names on their fatigues said Lewis and Kamp.
"Sergeant Lewis, this is my newly adopted daughter, Jessie. Please take her home, and see that she gets a good meal and some decent clothes. Then, bring her back here to the party. Kamp, I'll have a word alone with you."
"Yes, sir," they both said in unison.
Jessie turned and threw her arms around Richard, overcome with too many emotions to name.
"Thank you, thank you so much."
"You don't have to thank me, girl. Everything will be fine. You'll see."
He kissed the top of her head, and Lewis led her out the back door. She gave Richard one last look and smiled at him. He blew her a kiss as the door between them closed. Then, he turned to the soldier, his face suddenly solemn and devoid of its former kindness.
"Listen to me, Kamp. You are to take that girl and give her a good meal and some clothes like I asked, but then do NOT bring her here. This is a direct order. She goes to the slave camp with the rest of the Workers. You know the routine. Cut out her tongue. If she gives you any trouble, kill her."
"I know I can trust you."
And with that he turned and walked back into the party, to another round of applause. When the clapping had died down, Kamp could hear him yell through the door, "Another slave brought into the fold of the working class!" just before he stepped out into the night. Everyone cheered. The music played, the drinks continued to flow, and the dogs continued to bark, as if the world had never belonged to the birds at all. It belonged to them.