by Matt Slaybaugh
Karen stepped around the pile of manure to kiss her favorite horse on the nose. Cinnamon was popular among the ladies at the country club's equestrian center, but on this day his eyes were watery and snot dripped from his nose. The stablehand coughed into his sleeve. "Careful, miss. He's got a bit of a cold today." That evening Karen had a headache and the next day she stayed in bed with what felt like the flu. By the time she died, eight more women from the club had become ill. When they began dying, the county launched an investigation.
The coroner found that most of the staff and all of the club members at the center had shown the same symptoms. After two weeks, three of the staff had died. Meanwhile every member, guest, and horse had died, along with the Coroner and his family, as well as his staff and their families.
Local churches shut their doors and most businesses did as well. The schools were closed. The disease spread throughout the state and into adjacent states. The Centers for Disease Control isolated the source of the illness: a form of Hendra virus had mutated and was now both airborne and transferrable between humans. A vaccine was at least four months away. Airports across the country were closed along with all schools, government buildings, and shopping malls. The CDC confirmed what many had suspected, that while the disease was highly contagious to everyone, most fatalities were among caucasian people. In fact, lethality was about 30% for non-whites but for those who had a particular gene unique to those with European ancestry, death was more than 99% certain. Within a month, almost every white person in America was dead.
In a small city in southern Ohio, Carla sat in her apartment with her mother and uncle, nervous and uninfected. The power was out, and the water only trickled from the taps. Carla's uncle sat on the fire escape watching the looters. Her mother shook her head. They had food but needed water, and when they felt they couldn't wait any longer, the uncle ventured out. When he opened the apartment door, they heard coughing and moaning from inside the other apartments. He covered his mouth and nose with his sleeve and left. He didn't return that night.
The next morning Carla's mother wrapped her face in a scarf and went to check on Mrs. Kowalski on the 3rd floor. She returned soon after, upset because Mrs. Kowalski had died. Carla's mother gave her a guilty look and showed the two bottles of water she had taken from Mrs. Kowalski's apartment. Carla's mother sneezed and she and Carla looked at each other.
Carla cared for her until she became too sick herself and fell into her bed, waking days later crusted in dried vomit and sweat and mucus, with her mother dead on the floor beside her. She opened the windows and let the sun and fresh air in. The world was bright and quiet outside. She tried the faucets but there was no water and still no electricity or phone service. She ventured into the hallway and was surprised by three teenage boys who she recognized from school. They gave her water and said that they were the only survivors in the building. The oldest, Michael, explained "We're going floor to floor, door to door, grabbing all the food, water, and batteries. We're leaving the bodies where they are. The rear stairwell is for trash." They invited Carla to eat with them, but she wanted to clean up first. The youngest brother, Brian, helped her wrap her mother in a sheet and carry the body to another apartment across the hall until they could figure out what to do with her. Brian left her to grieve but Carla was too tired to cry.
The next day the boys invited Carla to go outside with them to scavenge other buildings. She still felt weak, but the building reeked of death and she needed to get away. Michael saw a group of young women outside of a building down the street. They had a stash of food and bottled water in the back of a pickup truck. One woman stood guard while the others brought more supplies down. Michael suggested making a diversion and getting the one guarding to chase him, and then the others could take the supplies. Carla objected but Brian defended the idea, "It's not like it's their stuff to begin with." Carla protested again, "But it wouldn't be fair." Michael laughed, "Life is unfair. May as well make it unfair to our advantage."
Carla refused to go along with the plan and instead went to talk with the woman at the truck. Her name was Zahra. They found that they knew some of the same people and compared notes about how they were making out, who had survived, what news they had heard. While they talked, the boys snuck around the truck and grabbed as much water and bags as they could carry, then dashed off. Carla shouted at them, but Zahra shrugged it off. "Everyone's in need these days and we have enough to share." She offered more of the water and food and Carla shyly accepted. "We're all in the same tribe. We have to help each other out."
Carla returned to the boys' apartment and yelled at them, demanding that they return at least some of the water. Michael and David refused. Brian went out with a few bottles to apologize to Zahra but came back saying the truck had already gone. His brothers didn't believe him, and Carla didn't know whether she did either.
A few days later the brothers went out, leaving Carla to organize the food, water, clothes, and other supplies. While they were out, they found an unlooted storeroom at a liquor store. They returned drunk, laughing and singing, and made rude jokes at Carla's expense. She returned to her apartment. The next morning, she went across the hall to see her mother's body. The smell was not as bad as it had been, but she didn't lift the sheet.
Carla stood over her mother's body, remembering a time when a girl at school had been mean to her. Her mother had yelled at her to stick up for herself, and Carla knew what she would have said now: "You show those boys! You owe them nothing! Pack your bag and go! And pee in their beds before you leave!" She tried to imagine what her father would have told her, "Be safe and don't take unnecessary risks." She decided to listen to her mother.
She went back to her room and packed a flashlight, batteries, water bottles, granola bars, socks. She started a note for the boys but couldn't think of what to write.
Carla locked the front door to the building behind her and turned right on the deserted street. She found a bicycle laying against the curb and she picked it up and started riding. The weeds were high, but the air was clear. There had always been garbage on the street, but most of it had blown away. She smiled sternly and turned left out of the neighborhood, her home no longer visible behind her, and she thought about her mother again. She recalled watching a movie with her mother once, "Gone with the Wind". For days later they had made each other laugh by calling out, "Where shall I go? What shall I do?"
She rode on and passed some people sitting on their porch. They stared at her. One young man shouted at her and she rode faster. Another young man said nothing but ran after her for a block or so.
A few blocks away was Gabriella's house. She was a cousin who had gone to a different school. A man stood on the stoop of Gabriella's building with a rifle. He ignored her and when Carla asked about Gabriella, a woman poked her head out from behind him saying there was no one there by that name. Carla asked about her aunt and uncle and other cousin, but the woman just shook her head.
Carla kept riding. As she left the outskirts of the city, she passed the house of a girl she used to know, Kristin, who had invited Carla to her birthday years before. One game they had played was musical chairs and Kristin and her closer friends had laughed so hard when they had shoved Carla out of the way at the first music break. Kristin was probably dead now. Carla thought about going into the house and taking a chair. She realized she could claim the whole house if she wanted. The world had become one big game of musical chairs with twice as many chairs as people. But she didn't want to. Not that house.
She rode toward the hills to the north of town, to a street called Everwood Terrace, with huge houses at the ends of long driveways. One home was surrounded by a high fence with a gate across the driveway. The gate was locked with an electric lock and she couldn't figure out how to open it so passed on. Beneath a canopy of trees and a bit further was the next house. At the top of the driveway she paused and looked around but saw and heard no one. She pushed the doorbell, but it didn't ring. She knocked on the door and thought she heard something. "Hello?" she called hoarsely, then cleared her throat and called again. She heard a very faint dog's bark. It was a plaintive sound, not aggressive.
The door was locked, and she walked toward the garage. The garage door was locked as well, as were the doors of the cars in the driveway. She found a stone and broke a pane of glass in the door next to the garage and reached in to open it. Once inside she called again, and a dog limped toward her. It lowered her head and growled for an instant, but the growl became a whimper. Carla looked in the kitchen and found it destroyed. The dog had scratched and chewed through everything it could. Carla found a jug of water on the top shelf in the pantry and filled a bowl. The dog drank and drank and drank. At her apartment building, Carla had learned the hard way not to bother opening refrigerators that had been closed for weeks with no power. She looked around the house and found a second kitchen, also ruined. In the garage she found a large bag of dry dog food and she filled a bowl. The dog ate and ate and then retched and then ate some more. The house stank and she opened doors and windows. She found a can of artichoke hearts on a high shelf and went out to the front porch and ate out of the can. The grass on the lawn was about a foot high and the breeze rippled through it like ocean waves.
The dog came over and put its head in Carla's lap. She scratched its head and the dog lay at her feet. It wore a collar but there was no name on the tag. Carla remembered Little Orphan Annie's dog, Sandy. She couldn't think of a better name, so she looked at the dog and asked, "Sandy?" The dog looked at her. She asked again and the dog tilted its head. "Sandy." she said finally, and the dog muttered a small sound. And the naming ceremony was complete.
Sandy turned her head and growled, looking off into the distance. A group of five dogs chased two deer out of the woods and into the street. The deer were faster, but the dogs were surrounding them. Sandy looked agitated so Carla took her inside and they explored the house. Sandy wouldn't enter certain rooms and Carla left those doors closed. In the kitchen and on shelves around the house were photos of smiling people: blond grandchildren in matching sweaters, family in front of a Christmas tree, some men on a boat. One bedroom looked like it had been a teenage girl's room. Carla turned all the photos to face the wall and then went through the drawers looking for clean underwear in her size. She slept on the couch with Sandy on the floor beside her.
In the morning they walked around the house. Sandy jumped and barked at squirrels. Carla looked across the expanse of grass into the neighboring yards and saw a little cottage down the hill from a much larger stone building. It looked like it had once been a horse stable but now had solar panels on the roof and what turned out to be an electric pump for a well. The door was locked but she used a laminated ID card in her bag to open the latch by sliding the card into the door jamb. Inside was a working refrigerator and working lights. Water flowed from the taps. Hot water. She stripped and showered until the hot water ran out. The bed was small, but clean and comfortable. She sat on the bed and smiled, then went outside and walked around and looked up at the main house. She thought she saw a face in one of the windows.
Carla's face grew warm and she went back inside the cottage, but knew she had been seen. She took a breath, walked up to the main house, and knocked on the door. Almost immediately a girl's face appeared at the window. "Can you help me?" she asked through the glass. Carla paused. The girl did not look sick although her eyes were wild and her hair was a mess. "What do you need?" Carla asked.
The girl asked for water and food but wanted Carla to wipe the containers down with bleach and leave it on the doorstep. Carla returned to the house where she had found Sandy and collected a few cans of food and water bottles along with bleach and rags. She found a wheelbarrow in the garage and took it all back to the girl's house, wiped everything, knocked, and walked about halfway back to the cottage. Then she turned and waited. The girl yanked open the door and pulled everything but the wheelbarrow into the house. She wore a surgical mask, goggles, and rubber gloves, and had tape over her wrists and ankles. She slammed the door and Carla waited a few minutes before taking the wheelbarrow. She and Sandy walked to another house in the neighborhood to scavenge.
The house next door was well-stocked so she made a few trips and filled the cottage's little kitchen with as much as could fit. Then she took another load up to the girl, who was waiting at the door when she got there. She looked like she had been crying. She introduced herself as Ashley and asked what was happening. Carla had to yell to be heard and told her as much as she could think of. Ashley said she had found a radio station that was still broadcasting, although just for an hour each day. She said the government was going to open again next week. Carla said she was hoping to stay in the cottage. Ashley looked disappointed. "The guest house? I guess that's okay."
Carla slept in the bed at the guest house with Sandy. There was a small lamp on the bedside table, and she stayed up late reading a copy of the screenplay for "A Streetcar Named Desire" that she had found on a shelf. She woke late, showered again, and filled an oversized backpack with supplies before taking a final batch of supplies to Ashley and told her she was leaving. Ashley was upset, almost to tears. "You know, it's probably safe to come out now." Carla said. "What do you know about it?!" Ashley shrieked. Carla said she would come back in a few days to check on her.
Carla tried riding the bicycle while wearing the backpack, but it was clumsy, and she decided Sandy wasn't strong enough yet to run along beside her. So, they walked. Where Everwood met the main road was near Sunset Park, one of the highest points in town. From there Carla looked across the valley, down to her old neighborhood. She guessed it would take about four hours to walk back to her old house. Even if it was awkward with the boys, she could sleep in her own bed again. She noticed smoke near the highway to the west, but it didn't look like another house fire. She decided to check it out.
Under the overpass to the interstate highway was a market with hundreds of people buying, selling, trading, eating, playing music, and hanging out. She smelled hot food and Sandy barked with excitement. Some of the smell came from a portable wood-fired pizza oven in the back of a pick-up truck. The line for pizza was long so she wandered off. She missed pizza almost as much as she missed her phone, but she didn't have the same appetite she used to have and wasn't hungry enough to wait in line. Some other vendors sold noodles with vegetables. Someone had a barbecue and Carla wondered where he had gotten the meat.
Carla then saw one of the brothers, David, the middle one, talking with someone. She pretended not to see him, but he saw her and walked over. He didn't quite apologize for how they had treated her, but said he was glad that she's OK. "You know, I bet Brian would like to see you again. Me and him are building a water catchment system on the roof. And we have some new friends staying in the building, they're camped out on the second floor. You should come by." She said something without committing and David seemed to understand. He asked if she had anything to trade with him, but she said no. She cheerfully wished him well and said she would stop by the house sometime.
Suddenly the streetlights flickered on and everyone stopped, looked up, and cheered. Carla grinned and gasped. Then the lights went dark again, and everyone moaned. She laughed, not at the lights but at the shared joy and disappointment. Everyone wanted the same thing.
"Carla?" Two young women approached her. She didn't recognize them right away without the heavy makeup they had used to wear, but it turned out to be Jasmine and Jayla, two of her cousins who lived across town. They hugged and caught up and opened their bags to share. Carla gave them two rolls of toilet paper, but they didn't have anything she needed. They were still living in the same house. Their father was still sick but getting better. They said they went to the market almost every day and Carla agreed to catch up with them again.
She walked around to the front of the truck with the pizza oven. A man was leaning over a folding table making pizzas as fast as he could. A woman was opening cans of tomato sauce and slicing balls of fresh mozzarella cheese. Carla asked where they got the cheese and the woman jerked her head to another stall at the market. "Farmer Rick".
Carla walked in that direction and found a table with lumps of butter wrapped in wax paper and plastic tubs filled with mozzarella balls. A man with a beard offered her a taste. A paper sign read 'help wanted'. The man saw her looking at it. "We could use all the help we can get, milking cows, making cheese, shoveling shit. My name's George." He held out his hand. "Rick runs the farm. He took it over when the owner died."
Carla shrugged and helped George at the stall until the light started to fade. George held his hand out toward the horizon. "We have about half an hour till sunset. Let's pack up." They had sold about half the butter and most of the cheese, and most of that had gone to the pizza people. George counted the money. "Not everyone takes money these days." They drove George's van to a small dairy farm on the edge of town. Carla recalled having taken a field trip there in elementary school. She had forgotten the odor of a dairy farm. "You get used to it." George said. They parked outside of a barn where a man was pitching hay. "Rick!" George shouted. "We got one more run in the van before it's out of gas." Rick nodded.
Rick showed her around the farm, introduced her to some other workers, and showed her the fields where they were going to plant wheat. He introduced her to Denise, who would later show Carla how to milk a cow and churn butter. Rick took her to the old horse stables. He and some friends had walled up the hayloft into rooms and he took Carla to one. There was an air mattress on the floor. "We're working on getting better furniture. There's plenty of good stuff to be had. The problem is getting it here."
The next week was a pleasant blur of community breakfasts and dinners, a constant stream of people coming and going. Carla did some milking and churning, but since Denise had seniority, Carla ended up mostly cleaning the stables.
One day, Carla took her lunch break in Rick's office in the main house. Behind his desk stood a dented filing cabinet filled with candy. "A delivery truck was parked outside a drug store." Rick explained. "I took a look in the back and it was full of crates of the stuff." A boy came in looking for odd jobs and Rick told him to bring back some reams of paper and a bunch of pens and scissors. The boy asked for advance payment and Rick handed him one chocolate bar and one dollar. After the boy left, Rick explained that the boy and a bunch of other kids had taken over one of the office buildings downtown, the nine-story tower. "This candy is worth more than money to them. They've got multiple lifetime's worth of stationery that's no good to them other than for making paper airplanes."
Afterward, back at the barn, Denise and George asked Carla whether she had brought up the issues of payment or time off with Rick. Carla said no. "I don't even care about the money," George said, "There's nothing to buy anyway. Everything we really need we already have. Anything we want we can probably find."
"Yeah." Said Denise. "But I need time off. Day after day in this barn. I know it's Rick's farm, but it's not like he built it. He just found it first. it's not fair that we shovel shit every day while he sits in that office."
"What would be fair?" Carla asked.
"I don't know what's fair. I just not know what's not fair. And this aint fair."
George cleared his throat. "My parents." He said, looking upward. The others looked down in respect. "My parents had a good relationship. A good marriage. You know, they both always thought they were getting the better end of the deal. I don't know if that counts as fair, but it was a good arrangement."
Denise thought about that, then said, "And right now, only Rick is getting the better end."
The three of them approached Rick, who relented and said as soon as they could find another person to help in the barn, he would give everyone two days off per week. Any two they like, but only one person off on any given day. The cows needed milking every day. Denise ran the stall at the market the next day and found two people willing to work just for room and board. Rick shrugged and set them up in the hayloft and Denise made a roster. They had trouble agreeing on what day of the week it currently was but decided it was probably Tuesday. "Every day feels like a Tuesday." Carla got two days off in a row.
After three days Carla's break began. She had to look around for Sandy, who had made herself very much at home on the farm. Rick had found more gas and Carla and Sandy got a lift to the market. From there they walked back to Everwood Terrace. She knocked on Ashley's door but there was no answer. She tried to remember how long it had been. Certainly more than a week. Two weeks? The door was closed and locked and the supplies she had left were gone. Carla peeked in the windows but saw no sign of Ashley. She waited a bit and then walked down to the cottage.
The door was locked but she was able to unlock it with her ID as she had done before. As soon as she opened the door, a woman inside ran up to her, screaming. Carla jumped back and the door slammed in her face. Sandy barked and Carla quieted her. Carla spoke loudly through the door, introducing herself. She peered in the windows and saw the woman holding a baby. The baby did not look healthy and the woman was visibly injured. Carla offered to help but the woman didn't answer. There was still plenty of food on the counters. Carla and Sandy returned to the main house and knocked again and waited, knocked again, waited, and left.
They walked further along Everwood Terrace and came to another house, at least as expansive as the others, with three cars in the driveway and a lawn since turned to meadow. The front door was unlocked, and they explored all three floors, finding nobody there. Upstairs were seven bedrooms, each with a bed with clean sheets. There was no water from the tap, but they found cases of bottled water and they enjoyed a meal from the well-stocked pantry. She found batteries, flashlights, toilet paper, and several key rings hanging from pegs in the hallway. That night they slept in what she assumed was the master bedroom.
The next morning, she found a key for the largest of the cars in the driveway. As she filled the trunk and back seat with supplies, she saw a car racing down Everwood Terrace, the first car she had seen in that neighborhood. After she finished, she taped a note to the front door of the house that read, "Claimed" with her name and the day's date.
She had only ever driven twice, in her uncle's car, but she went slowly and managed to leave the driveway without hitting anything. She promised herself to come back next week on her break, to her 'country house'. Maybe the others would want to come. Or maybe she didn't want to share this with anyone.