It couldn’t be explained. It couldn’t be contained.
Unmoving forms crowded the allyways, and had overtaken gardens, and the bare land. I couldn’t remember any time in my life that my beloved city was so void of sound and movement. An eerie silence hung heavily in the air, and it weighed down on my being.
Abandoned cars lined the streets, and the stoplights continued to proudly flash their colors, even though no one was there to heed them. The digital billboards didn’t flash images of “flawless” models or advertisements for McDonald’s anymore. The whole world was decaying, the skyscrapers sickly skeletons of what they used to be, the roads expired paths to a future that had shriveled.
The air reeked of the overwhelming smell of rot, but nature thrived in mankind’s sudden depletion. It still rained and snowed, and the sun shone down with gusto onto the earth, oblivious to the suffering of the human race. The tender breeze that ruffled the leaves of overgrown trees mocked me in its freedom. The white noise of leaves shifting against each other, and the rubbing of grass stalks on grass stalks, which used to sooth my mind, now fill me with jealousy.
I had almost forgotten what it meant to be free.
We had almost forgotten what it meant to be free. How ironic, I thought, that the land of the free has rapidly become the land of the imprisoned. I snorted to myself and threaded the thin needle through the fabric of my little sister’s shirt. I just have to survive until we find an antidote- if there even is one…. A bitter voice in my head added. I discarded that train of thought.
“Sara….” A hoarse voice whispered. I lifted my head. Mia was leaning against the grimy walls of the subway station a few feet away, where she had been napping. She had pulled off her hygiene mask that was protectively wrapped around her ears. I opened my mouth to tell her to put it back on, but then I saw it.
Her skin was pasty white, and she was slick with sweat. My heart spasmed erratically. No. She isn’t infected- She can’t be! I thought frantically, and I rushed over to Mia, who had slid down the wall. She was lying on the cement floor, moaning. Her breaths were sharp and jagged.
“No.” I gasped aloud in disbelief.
My knees gave out, and my hand shook when I reached out to touch her. Reason finally took over, and I pulled my hand away. I closed my eyes. You can’t help her if you get infected, too. Memories flew through my mind- Mom kissing my head and saying that she’d be right back, that it would be okay, Pappa collapsing on the floor; the empty apartments of my friends, signs that read, ‘closed’ everywhere I turned, and then seeing that kid from my old school lead his little brother to the subway station. My stomach churned viciously, and I had to swallow puke.
“Okay, get a grip,” I said aloud, and blinked the moisture out of my eyes.
There wasn’t time for crying. There wasn’t time at all anymore.
“You’re not going to die, Mia. I’m going to make you better.”
But how? I wondered. How on earth are you going to make her better?
I heard the familiar bossy voice of my former classmate, Maverick Jenson, coming from a distance. Sniffling, I pushed myself into a standing position, fists balled tight. I could handle this I spoke into myself. I spoke his name with bravery and intent.
“Mavrick?” I called.
A scrawny fifteen year old boy appeared at the bottom of the stairs that lead to our shared, underground safe haven, holding his little brother’s hand. He scowled.
He asked darkly without looking up. I rolled my eyes. He was never a great person to be around- he was either glum or depressed, with some downcast gray areas in between. I took a deep breath.
“There’s something….I need help with.” I told him, standing in front of Mia, and hopefully blocking his view of her.
She was laying face down on the cracked cement, panting shallowly. Maverick frowned at her anyway.
“What’s up with Mia?” He questioned, ignoring my statement entirely.
I bit my lip in irritation and cleared my throat. Maverick didn’t even respond to me. He came closer to Mia, as if to investigate, and his eyebrows drew together. Grudgingly, I stepped aside.
I crossed my arms heatedly over my chest, my temper rising.
“Hey-” I began to shout, but I was swiftly cut off when Maverick whirled around.
“She’s infected,” He hissed, an accusatory gleaming in his eyes.
I opened my mouth to speak, but he wouldn’t stop for even a moment. He was ranting under his breath about safety and sickness, and I thought I may have heard the words mom and dad. Maverick stormed over to his brother and snatched his hand before marching up to the stairs that led out of the subway. I felt my breath catch.
Please don’t leave me- I can’t do this all by myself!
“MAVERICK!” I bellowed. Maverick’s back, turned to me, was still rigid and cold, but for once, he halted and slowly turned around so that I was facing him. I stood trembling with fury, my fists clenched and nostrils flaring.
“I need to talk to you about this,” I managed to say.
Maverick stood as if super glued to the bottom stair. His eyes were wide open in shock.
“O-Okay,” He stammered- and sat down.
I gaped for a moment before taking another shaky breath and joining him. I forced myself to look up at him. He seemed wary of me.
“I need to save her,” I whispered. He opened his mouth as if to say something but I cut him off, speaking louder and with (hopefully) more force.
“I know there isn’t an antidote, but…..We have to do something.” Maverick's eyes squinted doubtfully, and I raised my eyebrows. He sighed and looked over at my little sister.
My heart dropped into my stomach like a fifty pound weight.
“I would-maybe-but I need to take care of Eliott.”
His eyes shifted to his five year old brother, who had run away and was now sauntering around the subway station, making sounds like Lightning McQueen.
“Ca-chigga, ca-chigga, ca-chigga!” He squealed enthusiastically.
I glanced over at Mia, who, in other circumstances, probably would have gotten up and cheerfully joined him. She wasn’t moving. You’re not going to die. It won’t happen, I told myself. I gritted my teeth, as if clenching my jaw could squish my uncertainty into oblivion.
“I understand that, I do,” I murmured.
I laid my head in my hands and closed my eyes. I wished that I could scream at him, or that I could hammer into him that he had to help me, how could he let her die? But I understood. I’m not sure if I would have taken Mia and me out of the temporary safety of seclusion, just because Maverick wouldn’t believe in the inevitable.
Is it really safe anywhere? We thought we were safe because we were alone. Now look where we are, I reflected bitterly.
Setting my jaw, I turned to Maverick.
“I know that you won’t stay here anymore,and I don’t blame you, but….Check on her at least. Please.”
At first, I thought that he was going to shake his head or refuse, but he nodded, a queer expression on his face. Was it regret? Sorrow? Frustration? I didn’t know. I thought that he would leave our parting at that, but just as I turned away to grab my bag and leave, he said,
“I’ll do my best. I….I promise.”
A lump formed in my throat, but all I could do was give him a long look that hopefully said, thank you.
The air carried a sickly sweet smell that roiled my stomach, even with my hygiene mask on. Rays of warmth baked the streets, but the overturned chairs and the abandoned store fronts couldn’t enjoy the gift like the people of my city used to. I stood rooted to the pavement, one stride away from the “safety” of the underground. A soft breeze caressed my cheek and swept the hair out of my face. Birds were chirping cheerily in a nest hiding in a tree somewhere nearby. It was such an innocent song they shared with the world generously.
I wished that I had appreciated it more, before tragedy opened my ears to the beauty of it.
No matter how much I strained my ears, I couldn’t hear the voices of people. The stillness made my heart ache for someone to be with me, someone to aid me in my loneliness.
Where do I go? I thought hopelessly, gazing doubtfully around at the shells of businesses. What am I supposed to do now? I glanced over my shoulder down the dark descent, where I knew Mia was lying in agony out of sight.
“I will come back for you,” I promised in a hoarse whisper.
Promises can be lethal.
I analyzed my resources; the grocery stores and boutiques, candy stores and cafes, all had food still. Products still sat contentedly in deep freezers, ready for anyone who could access them. My stomach growled impatiently, and I remembered that Maverick had scavenged food for four people, while I had nothing except for an empty backpack. I smiled sourly.
Planning is my forte- for sure, I thought sarcastically.
About four buildings down from the subway entrance was a tiny cafe, the open sign hanging uselessly on the door, paint peeling. I approached the brass door knob cautiously. What if there were dangerous people in there? Gangs were rampant nowadays; what if they were waiting for me? What if they were going to shoot me, or do worse?
Don’t be such an anxiety ball, I chided myself.
How would they even know that you were coming?
Casting away my fear, I turned the doorknob. It creaked, but the door revealed an empty room.
The cafe would have been charming, if not for the upturned tables, musty smell, and the layers of grime that had piled up. A real, brick fireplace held charred wood, and above it, pictures of a large family made my heart ache for my wholesome past, rather than my shattered present. A plump, dark haired woman posed in front of the cafe, beaming and flashing pearly white teeth. I smiled at how happy she looked. I lifted my head and scanned the remains of the cafe again; What happened to you and your family? I asked the woman, but staring pleadingly at a picture wouldn’t get me anywhere, so I moved on.
The storage room was actually full of supplies. I stuffed my backpack with packages of seeds and dried fruits. Once satisfied with my horde of foods, I yanked the freezer door open as well.
“Yes!” I gasped aloud.
There, sitting on the shelf, was a tub of scooperman ice cream, all alone.
The other scavengers must not have been a fan, I thought, smirking and grabbing it.
At the counter, there was still a dinky ice cream scooper, but I just used it as a massive spoon. It was somehow calming, sitting in the semi-darkness, eating unhealthy amounts of ice cream by myself. I let myself slouch, splaying myself over the loveseat in front of the fireplace, ignoring the dust all over it.
I should have taken Mia out of the city entirely, I realized, sighing heavily, staring at the picture of the plump woman unblinkingly.
There wouldn’t be as many germs in a less populated area or city, right? Maybe that’s where everybody went; they’re all hiding out in seclusion somewhere, and everyone who’s left are the gangs that think they rule the city now. But how long would this last? Would an antidote ever be found? Were scientists all over the world working together to find a solution to this unexplainable epidemic? I wondered what it would be like to be….normal again.
Maybe that was the most painful thing about this whole ordeal. If this was ever over, normal wouldn’t be an option anymore. We might be able to heal, or put an ugly bandaid over our scarred minds, but we’d never be the same. I would never forget the silence, or this cafe, the subway, my family…. The image of Maverick’s face when he promised to take care of Mia forced my eyes closed.
Will I ever see him again? I wondered.
An hour passed like that; me lying lazily, slowly depleting the amount of ice cream left in the tub, thinking mournfully about my life, before I finally decided that the best place to go to find an answer was where this had all began for the world.
I approached the hydraulic doors carefully, holding my breath. My heart punched my ribs at a rapid rate, and I had to bite my cheek so hard it hurt so that I wouldn’t shake. The hospital exterior was just as I had remembered from years ago when I had broken my arm; the only difference was that the decorative shrubs were wild and untrimmed, all of the curtains were drawn, and there were cars in every parking space.
Is that good or bad? I thought frantically.
I would have to find out for myself.
The instant I placed worn-out and faded sneakers on the threshold of the building, I knew something was off. All of the lights were on in the ER, but there wasn’t a clerk at the desk, and the desk’s contents were strewn across the makeshift office. A Vera Wang purse had been kicked under the desk, its contents littering the tile floor. I took a tentative step into the waiting area, and I had to swallow bile.
The chairs had been tipped over and thrown across the room; the TV was broken, and the coffee machine was on the floor. Streaks of slime marred the cream-colored wall, and what I assumed were blood stains marred the chair cushions; not to mention the unrecognizable, foul scent that assaulted my nose. My heart faltered, and my breath caught. I had to find someone. Where did everyone go? What happened?
My legs adopted control over me while my mind was trapped in its numb state. I found myself running down the hallway, through double doors, and opening the first patient room that I came to. There, on the floor, was a large, lumpy pile, partially hidden by a plastic sheet. I clapped my hand over my nose and squeezed, suddenly dizzy from the stench of rot. My hands slammed the door shut and I slid against the closed door. I had to move. I needed to get out of here, find another solution, but it was like my legs had decided that they were done playing leader.
Maybe not everyone’s dead, I thought desperately.
Maybe these are just some bodies, all crammed in here, to save room for people they can save….
Even before I had discovered the same, twisted scene, in ten several other rooms, I knew that no one living was left in the hospital. Shaking, I pulled the last door closed.
What do I do? What do I do? I wondered wildly, running my hands through my greasy hair.
I picked up my head and wandered to the balcony on the other end of the hallway, pushing the double doors open, heart racing faster than a sports car.
I just need air, I told myself.
I would never forget the sight I beheld there, the horrors that filled the back parking lot of the hospital, a grotesque tableau. I stumbled backwards as tears streamed down my face, and I let myself collapse on the inside of the doors. Breathing came in short, jagged gasps of terror, and my chest tightened.
Is this a what a panic attack feels like? I wondered vaguely.
What happened to those people? Why are there so many bodies? Wild images of people writhing on the grimy tile floors, children screaming for their mommies on the streets, dark, ominous surgery rooms, and dark forms flooded my mind, a merciless flood, in response to my terrible questions. Blackness tinged my vision, and suddenly, the floor was rushing up to meet me.
Do I care if I were to somehow die here? The question flashed through my mind before a sharp pain consumed my brain.
I awoke to something poking me, but I was in too much of a stupor to investigate. I moaned irritably, and someone chuckled. What? I thought uncomprehendingly.
I’m all alone….aren’t I? The person jabbed me again, chortling to themselves.
Maverick…? No, it can’t be him...
The blurry image of a skinny, five year old girl with bleach blonde hair lying on the ground, skin an unhealthy shade of white, made my eyes snap open instantly. Grief pried at the back of my consciousness, but I shoved it away roughly.
No time, no time, I ordered to myself briskly.
I found myself staring up at the beige ceiling of a room. Slowly, I pushed myself into a sitting position, head throbbing unforgivingly, and I was reminded that I had passed out. A young woman with tan skin and short brown hair smirked at me.
“Sleeping Beauty’s awake!” She exclaimed, flashing me a teasing grin. I blinked.
“Excuse me?” I managed to say, heart thumping.
“Whoa, whoa, calm down honey, I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
I frowned anyway. We were sitting in the family room of a once nice apartment. The soft gray walls were covered in a layer of dust that had accumulated over time, coating everything. The strange thing, however, was that everything was covered in dust, except for the array of pictures hanging on the right wall. In nearly every picture, I recognized a healthier, happier version of the young woman sitting across from me, surrounded by groups of beaming people.
“Who are you?” I inquired skeptically, sitting up as straight as I could manage while my headache sent stabs of pain into my skull.
The woman turned away, reaching for something behind her on the floor. My backpack, I realized. For a moment, I thought she was going to steal it, but then she handed it to me with a lopsided look that said,
See? You can trust me.
I refused to put my guard down, however, and forced myself to my feet. My independence was quickly thwarted by dizziness that overwhelmed me. I collapsed again.
“Sweetie, I suggest that you lay down again.”
The young woman ordered, a motherly tone in her voice; the familiarity of being under the kind authority of a guardian made the empty feeling in my chest throb.
She has sparkly blue eyes, just like Mia’s, I realized. I averted my gaze, closing my eyes briefly.
“I can’t rest, ma’am. I need to find a cure. Now.” The woman nodded thoughtfully, as if truly considering my impossible mission.
“You passed out in the hospital,” she told me, fixing me with a pointed stare. After I stared at her blankly for a few moments, she let out a chuckle. “Well, what were you doing there? Surely you knew that none of the hospitals are operational.” I swallowed sour disappointment.
“Ahh, nope.” I tried to sound sarcastic and playful about my failure, but it fell flat.
“Hey- why were you there if you actually knew that it wasn’t operational?” I deftly added, quirking an eyebrow curiously, hoping to mask my disappointment. The woman’s eyes widened and she looked sulky for a moment, but then she broke into a smile.
“That’s- well, that’s….” Flustered, the woman sighed again. Then she drew a breath and met my eyes gravely.
“A group of me and my friends have decided to go to Washington, DC, and go to the White House, find answers somehow. We’re fed up with not knowing anything.”
What does that have to do with the hospital? But I quickly forgot that when I saw the passion in her face. The fire in her eyes seemed to relight the wick of my hope, and it began to burn weakly again.
“I’m coming with you!” I exclaimed, lifting my head to look directly into her eyes.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? To get in the Jeep of people that I don’t even know hardly at all, after feinting in a hospital, to bully answers out of the government, in hopes of a cure for my little sister who may or may not be dead already?
I was so desperate, so hurt, that I did it anyway. I will never forget their names, and their faces are forever imprinted in my mind- I remember them fondly.
When our group arrived at the capitol, dread crept into our hearts and strained our throats so that the car was filled with heavy silence. The absence of any car or straggler on the road made my stomach churn worriedly, but as we drove through six lane highways into the heart of DC, we knew that our passionate quest was in vain. The streets were empty, and no people were seen anywhere, the buildings standing hollowly. It reminded me of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, when the army of droids were shut down because their power source was no longer operational.
The capital of the United States was desolate, and our candle of hope, held brazenly just hours ago, now flickered and spluttered before it died completely.
“Where do we go now?” I questioned in a tiny voice. I felt so powerless and naive.
What was I thinking? If New York City was empty, why would DC be any different, even though it’s the capital? And why would I follow these people? The five of them were hardly graduates, what did they really know?
“Now….we need to go someplace…..remote.” Bianca, a very young-looking woman, murmured from the driver’s seat. I didn’t even look back at the city that had shattered the possibility for answers. Nico, an intelligent, college-looking man, pondered this for a few moments, tapping his finger occasionally, as if he was chewing on the idea.
“You’re right,” he finally announced, peering around at the others to see if they agreed, also. Anxiety seized my stomach and I bit my lip. The image of my little Mia, so innocent, lying in agony on cement, sickeningly pale, sent a shiver down my spine.
No one said anything in reply to Nico; did that mean they agreed?
“So…..where should we go?” Amy, the kind woman who saved me, asked, biting her lip.
“Somewhere really, really remote, where no one could get infected,” James supplied, his brown eyes fixated out the window. He was holding the hand of Denise, his fiancee.
“Yeah, that’s exactly it- let’s go….to…..Montana! I’ve heard that it’s beautiful there,” She sighed dreamily, squeezing James’ hand. He smiled back at her, and their tender affection for one another loosened the knot of fear in my stomach.
“I…...I can’t go with you!” I exclaimed, pressure pushing at the corners of my eyes. Amy turned to me, her face forlorn.
“Why? We can take care of you- people need to stick together.” She announced. She said it with a pleading sorrow gleaming in her eyes. I didn’t know why, exactly, she was sad at my leaving; I’m just a stranger. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her what happened to all of the people from the pictures on her wall.
“I need to find a cure for my little sister,” I whispered. “She’s only five, and she’s all I’ve got, and I’m all she’s got, too. She got infected randomly a week ago, and…..” I swallowed rapidly, but an obnoxious lump in my throat wouldn’t go away. “....and she’s still in New York, probably all alone, but my friend said he’d do the best he could, but I know…..”
Before I could stop it, tears overflowed and rapidly, I was sobbing, because I knew what they already knew.
Mia was already dead.
There was no cure to go and find for her. But I can’t just leave it at that! I need to bury her, or….. I lifted my eyes to see that Amy was crying, too.
“We’ll go back, Sara. We’ll do what we can.”
The shrill cries of a baby roused me from a deep sleep. Beside me, my husband groaned, completely exhausted after a long day at work.
“I’ll….get it…” He mumbled, fighting his eyes open a crack.
I chuckled and shook my head.
“No, Maverick, I’ll get it,” and patted his leg comfortingly. He snored softly in response. Laughing quietly, I crept out of our bedroom and crossed the chill hallway. The door of my daughter’s room opened easily.
My daughter was crying her little heart out in the small white crib, tears shining on her sweet face.
“Oh, love, come here!” I exclaimed, and cradled her in my arms securely. Her howls of distress ceased instantly, and her stark blue eyes fixed on my face unwaveringly.
“I’ll protect you, Mia,” I whispered, and gently placed a kiss on her temple.
The blurry scene of a petite five year old girl with bleach blonde hair lying on cracked cement, her skin a sickly shade of white, flashed through my mind. I closed my eyes. The day I returned to New York City, I had found nothing left of Mia. Later, however, I discovered that it was because Maverick had buried her for me.
I opened my eyes again. My daughter’s eyes were closing slowly. She was so fragile in my arms- her life depended heavily on me, just like my sister’s had, but my sister hadn’t survived, despite my promise.
Promises have weight, fulfilled or otherwise.