At first, the news reported the deaths at the tail end of the “if it bleeds, it leads” segment at the top of the hour. A handful of strange deaths in India. A small village in China. An unknown sickness hurting oil production in Saudi Arabia. All these things happened half a world away. They didn’t affect my life, so I paid them little mind.
By the end of the second month, the news filled with instructions on where to get vaccinations. How to stop spreading the contagion by washing your hands and wearing a mask. In the third month, the pharmaceutical companies gave away free vaccinations. Volunteers roamed homeless shelters and low-income neighborhoods. Sometimes the video clips showed them holding people down against their will and injecting them. God bless America!
They reported high numbers of sick people clogging up emergency rooms. Staff shortages due to illness became a topic of conversation in line at the grocery store. Canned goods and distilled water flew off the shelves. The huge box stores hosted fistfights and gunshots over dried goods. People coughed and sneezed, they left germs on door handles, but by then it was too late. The virus mutated and went airborne. Well, they thought it was a virus. Turns out “they” were wrong, it revealed itself as a prion. No vaccine on earth could stop it.
In the fourth month, the first major worldwide wave of deaths hit. The vaccines did nothing to stop the prion from tearing through the population. It killed the old, the young, and those between. It killed my parents and my three older brothers. It killed their wives, and children. It killed my aunt and cousin. It killed my classmates, my teachers, and my best friend. The bodies piled up at the morgue, but no one was left to bury them.
The talking heads on television called it the worst pandemic since the Spanish Influenza of the early 19th century. They debated if this was the end of humanity. Wave after wave decimated the globe. Even tiny pockets of humans deep in the Amazon didn’t escape unscathed. Globalization, the thing that had brought us together across thousands of miles of ocean and land, had also brought us to our knees.
Eighty percent of the population died within three weeks of exposure. Twelve percent of the population got sick, but with the right medical treatment, they survived. Most of them never made it to a hospital, or the medicine to combat the secondary symptoms had been used up. Eight percent of us went completely untouched. Eight percent of seven billion people.
I lived in Napa Valley. My great grandparents grew grapes and made wine for almost sixty years. They passed down the business to my grandparents, who passed it down to my dad. My older brothers and I were in line to inherit the winery. Four generations had worked this land, and now I was the only one left. Lucky me.
The recordings continued day and night, repeating nothing but warnings to stay away from other people. All the reporters had to be dead by now. The voice on the radio told us not to go to work or visit public spaces. It told us to fill our bathtubs, sinks, buckets, and pans with clean water. It told us to lock our doors and protect our families. It was too late to protect them from a microscopic evil.
In the seventh month, the broadcasts finally went dark with the rest of the electricity. The toilet stopped refilling with water. The faucets rattled and hummed, but nothing poured out. I’d eaten all of the fruit we kept in the tasting room. All of the cheese and nuts and palate cleansers. I’d ransacked my neighbors’ cupboards too. Dark chocolate and flavored olive oils on stale bread taste good for only so long.
I filled a bag with a few clothes —shirts of bands that were most likely dead — and personal things I couldn’t bring myself to leave behind like my iPhone. There hadn’t been a signal for ages, but all my photos were on it. Like the one of Dad uncorking a good year and grinning like he’d stolen it. Or Mom ironing tablecloths for Eddie’s wedding. Roxie and Layla running through the vineyard, their long dark pigtails flying behind them. Max kissing my cheek. Max holding a cupcake with a lit candle. Max tying a knot in his fishing line and looking so serious it made me laugh. Max and Max and Max.
I drove the delivery van through smaller neighborhoods, breaking into empty houses and eating canned goods. I found an orange grove and ate so much citrus my gums hurt. The van ran out of gas on Highway 29, too far to walk to and from a gas station, so I left it on the side of the road. I hadn’t seen a living person for two months.
The forest edged the road, pulsing with life. Birds called high above in the canopy. Squirrels barked at me as I passed. The steady hum of insects made it feel like everything was fine. Like I was walking through the woods on a normal afternoon. No one had died. When I got home, Max would be there with Jolly Ranchers and Mountain Dew. We’d finish our homework in my room and make-out on the roof.
Then it started to rain. Just a light mist at first, the sky above darkened to an angry gray. I cursed the sky for not warning me when I sat in the van and contemplated leaving it. The mist turned into splats of rain, and then it coursed down my face and arms. My sneakers became heavy with mud, leaves, and grass. Deep shivers vibrated out of my bones. I pulled on a hoodie and continued walking. Within minutes, I was soaked through, the cotton weighted against my shoulders and chest.
I trudged on — I had no other choice — until I found a large tree with space between its roots. I climbed in, only to find myself face to face with a boy. A living, breathing, real-life boy with bright eyes and dark hair plastered against his forehead! It had been so long since I’d uttered a word that the sound felt foreign in the back of my throat when I tried to speak. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“Hi,” I said, relief and surprise pitching my voice higher than normal.
He held out his hand to help me into the shelter of the tree. I hesitated at first, not wanting him to touch my cold and clammy hand. Then I slid on a wet root and grabbed his hand with both of mine to stop myself from pitching forward. His smile showed straight white teeth behind trembling lips.
We huddled under the roots, shivering together, but warmer too. It soon became clear that he was deaf. He indicated that he could read lips. I asked his name. He shook his head in confusion, so I snapped off a twig and wrote “Name?” in the mud.
He took the twig and wrote, “Amir.” Then he pointed at the question I’d written and pointed to me.
I should’ve written, “Hope,” because that was my name, but I didn’t. My name felt like a farce now. Instead, I wrote, “Holly.” It was close enough to my name to feel like the truth.
For more great art by Jen Hickman, please visit her website (http://umicorms.com/). Illustration © Copyright, Jen Hickman 2012. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Anne. Join us every Monday next month when we post four more tales on a new prompt.