(This is my first novel, I began it back in 2001 but did not finish it until 2011 so please forgive me if some of the material is dated. Also, and I beg, keep in mind I have come a long way with my crimes against punctuation since I began on this journey. This is the first 30 pages or so. I hope you enjoy. Any critiques would be greatly appreciated. I will post more as I have a chance to go through and make sure the chapters are legible. I have a horrible habit of thinking faster than I am able to type. Thank you. – JM)
The Beginning 1
Riad woke early as he did every morning, brushed his teeth, showered, and dressed. He quietly made a simple breakfast of sliced pineapple and bananas. He was always respectful to his roommates despite his secret loathing of them both.
He had lived here in this cramped apartment for almost two years as he attended NYU working towards a degree he knew he’d never finish. Riad was a peace loving sort who prayed every night that his people would be free of the infidels’ oppression.
At times he found himself wondering if they were as bad as he had been taught. Then he would remember the flashes and explosions so powerful his hearing had been damaged. This he told his classmates was a hereditary problem.
Then with heart crushing clarity he remembered his mother. The memory of her so fragile, dying in his father’s arms took over. She had a wooden beam deeply lodged in her chest; the pictures flooded his mind. The silent eeriness of it made his heart race and spine tingle even after all these years.
The beam had been driven home by the force of the infidel’s mortar round. Whether human error or an act of nature, the round had missed the warehouse fifty yards away and had blown away the entire corner of his family’s modest home.
His mother had tried to speak but could not form the words. It would have mattered little; he and his father would not have been able to hear. They watched her struggle to breathe her last breaths with destroyed lungs.
He steadied himself, fighting the urge to scream. Hatred hardened his heart. “Yes they are that bad.” He muttered softly under his breath.
He noticed the time and hurried himself. He finished his breakfast and set out just as he had done every weekday for the past two years. It was only five in the morning when he hit the frigid New York streets and he felt revitalized by the brisk air, he kept a quick pace.
He followed his regimen to the minute. He met his train at the usual time, exited at his usual stop. He was known for being one of the first to arrive and last to leave at the school’s massive library. He enjoyed learning and it kept his mind from his most feared enemy: doubt.
He began to study as he had always done but today was of course different than any before. He wondered to himself, will I live through this? He quickly shook this thought off, knowing it wasn’t important. He had a mission and he would do what he was asked no matter what it was.
It was a quarter till seven when the messenger arrived. Riad didn’t know what to make of this man. He was dressed in a canary yellow windbreaker, bicycle shorts, helmet, and gloves, all of which were covered in reflective strips. Riad hadn’t known who would show up, but to trust such delicate information to just any bicycle messenger shocked him.
He signed for the envelope and nonchalantly opened it, feigning interest for the benefit of the nosy librarian who had pointed him out to the messenger. He acted happy as he pulled the card from the envelope.
He said, smiling, “It’s my birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” replied the librarian who went back to her work, disinterested.
Riad had no problem acting; he had been doing so for years. He was after all on the frontlines of the war. He had to do what was expected of him. He had sworn to his fallen mother and the ailing father he had left behind to complete this mission.
The card was one of the musical types and as he opened it he had been afraid it would blare music into the silence of the early morning library, but it had not. It read “Happy birthday son, Love your Mother and Father.”
This made his heart ache. His father had died a year after his arrival in the US. He had been unable to go back for the funeral, fearing it would jeopardize the mission. He scanned the library, making sure no prying eyes were on him. He flipped over the card and saw that where the manufacturer logo should have been, there was instead a fictitious brand name and an address. He gathered his belongings and casually left the library.
He made his way outside, hailed a cab, and went to the address. The cab ride took a long time, which was fine with Riad. He had casually opened a book containing the birthday card and using his thumbnail, tore open the part that normally contained the little device which played the music. He saw that in its place was a small silver key.
“Clever,” he said under his breath.
“Huh,” barked the groggy cabby who looked as if he hadn’t had a day off in weeks.
“Oh nothing, sorry, I was just thinking out loud,” he replied, without a trace of tension in his voice.
He arrived at the address at eight thirty. He paid the cabby, giving him a nice tip.
“Thanks Bub,” retorted the cabby with a grin, “need me to wait on ya?”
Riad replied, “No thanks. I have business to handle here.” I don’t know exactly what business that is, he thought, as the cabby sped off.
He approached the building, which was a plain brick structure with a faded sign that read Jones’s Short Term/Long Term Storage. He entered. There was a reception desk with a grumpy looking old man dozing in an old cushy lounge chair in front of a set of double steel doors.
At the sound of Riad entering the old man looked up and snapped, “Key, where’s your key?”
Riad produced the key. The old man looked it over and handed it back wordlessly, buzzing him through to the storage area. The old man leaned back and began snoring immediately. Riad found this amusing and was grinning as he walked down the narrow corridor towards the locker that matched the number on his key.
The locker was small and the lock made quite a bit of noise, as if it hadn’t been opened in a very long time. Riad imagined it had not been. He knew little of what he was involved in, but he knew that he was not alone. He was comforted to know that many other people just like him, warriors on the front line of this epic battle were following messages this very morning all on different paths driven by faith.
All he knew about what was to come was told to him by a mysterious figure in a dark room four years earlier. “There will be many, and not one of you will know the others involved. This plan was set into motion after the invasion of Kuwait by the Infidel Americans and their supporters. We have been placing people and equipment all over the world since 1993.” He knew that this plan had cost lives, hundreds of millions of dollars, and sixteen years of hard work. He would not fail.
He slowly entered the small storage unit and was convinced there was some sort of mistake. It appeared to be filled with nonsense junk. There were boxes of old clothes, toys, and books. His heart sank. Was this all for nothing? Did someone fail at their portion of the mission? Are we found out? He began sweating, expecting armed assassins to come bearing down on him in a hail of bullets.
He waited a few tense minutes and when nothing happened, he began digging. He inspected box after box and just as he was sure there was nothing of use he saw a box labeled Riad’s Junk tucked away in the back corner. All his fears faded and he knew that once he opened this box there was no turning back. He was filled with strength, knowing that his faith was about to be tested.
As he moved the cardboard box, he found it was bigger than the rest and very heavy, though still manageable. He was very careful with it, not sure what he would find inside. It could be anything, as he had no idea what had been planned for him.
He imagined explosives. That was the simplest way, he had long thought, strap on a bomb and blow myself up somewhere densely populated. He always hoped it wouldn’t be explosives but that was irrelevant. He would do what he must.
He held his breath and opened the box. “Balloons?” He choked. The box was half full of deflated balloons. They were the nice ones you buy for birthdays and anniversaries and such. Pulling the balloons out slowly, looking for some form of instruction, he found a small note taped to the inside of the box which read:
Riad you are a great man and your name will echo through the halls of history through all the ages to come. Keep your faith my brother and you shall be a hero. Fill as many of these as you can carry around with you, release the gas on buses, trains, anywhere the infidels congregate. Do this all this day until you are caught or killed. If you are blessed with one more day, be in Time’s Square at nine am tomorrow. God be with you my friend.
He didn’t know who had written the letter, but it did not matter. He understood secrecy was important so that the architects of this great mission could live on to formulate new scenarios for exterminating the enemy.
He removed all the balloons and saw four helium tanks beneath. He filled and sealed a large bunch of balloons, then tied them in a bunch and added a bow. The old man did not stir as he left and he was careful not to let the door slam.
He waited at the bus stop and whistled Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He was quite fond of classical music. As the lumbering bus approached, his whistling ceased and his lips expanded into a warm smile for the driver as the doors opened.
He sat in the first open seat he came to, he was all smiles to the other passengers but his insides were churning. He noticed a beautiful blond women sitting nearby. He caught her eye and she smiled sweetly at him. He let his mind wander for a moment, imagining her holding him, telling him how much she loved him. He saw their children being born and growing. He saw their future house and their blissful happiness.
The woman noticed he was still watching her as he was lost in his thoughts and her smile broadened. Just as quickly as he let his mind wander he snapped back into reality. Just for a moment, the woman saw the vicious intent in his eyes but he recovered with a quick smile. The young woman did not look at him again and exited at the next stop.
He admonished himself silently. How could you be so foolish, she is as bad as any of them, she may as well have launched the mortar that killed your mother! They are the enemy and they are not to be trusted!
With that he punctured the first balloon. He went from bus to bus and train to train, careful he did not pop more than one in front of the same people, in order to avoid suspicion.
He traveled all over the city, visiting parts he had never been to before, often feigning disdain if anyone noticed one of his slackening balloons. He returned eight times that day each time carrying away a fresh bunch of balloons and a box of junk to make it appear he was just emptying the storage unit. The people running the place did not seem to care one way or the other.
Riad mused at how easy this all was more than once that long day. They don’t care enough to notice what is going on around them. These people deserve whatever they get.
In the afternoon he stood in a busy subway tunnel releasing balloon after balloon filled with what, he did not know, nor did he care. He had developed a cough that was mild at first and progressively worsened. At first he thought that it was being out so much that day that was making him sick, but then it occurred to him that it was most likely what he was unleashing upon the unsuspecting infidels. They are so prideful, they believe they can attack us in our homes but are safe to come and go as they please.
He spent twelve hours doing as his instructions had bade him until he was too sick to even think of continuing. He had noticed a great deal of sneezing and coughing much like his own during the last few hours.
He returned home at nearly eleven that night. His roommates were both home but did not greet him. They were already asleep. He thought this to be strange, considering neither of them ever went to bed this early. As he dozed off in between his own coughing and sneezing fits, he could have sworn he heard the same sounds of sickness coming from both of his roommates’ bedrooms.
When he woke the next morning he was surprised to see it was already bright outside. He had never overslept in the two years he had lived here. He had trouble getting up and getting to the bathroom. He was running a high fever and sweat poured from his body. There was no sound in the apartment except the wheezing coming from the other two bedrooms.
The gravity of what he had done slowly began to set in. It was obvious that both his roommates had the same symptoms as him and neither of them used the bus or subways. He began to wonder just what was in those helium tanks.
He took a much longer than usual shower, trying to let the steam clear his sinuses but to no avail. He got dressed, but did not eat. He left without waking his roommates. Despite years of acting as their friend, they were nothing to him, just two more enemies that needed to be dealt with.
He left the apartment at seven am and it took him an hour and a half to walk to Times Square. This walk would normally take him no more than an hour but he was very tired this morning. He didn’t want to ride the bus or to take the train so he just walked. He noticed even for this hour there were fewer people than normal. Another thing he noticed were the amount of sirens he heard. More than half the people he did see all seemed to be in the throes of a horrible flu just like him.
Riad found an unoccupied bench in Times Square and waited. He prayed silently to himself. He could not stop coughing but from what he had seen this morning he had done his job well. He smiled despite the fever and pain in his chest. At five minutes to nine a man sat down beside him.
“Riad?” The man asked.
This startled Riad and he slowly replied, “Yes.”
“I only received your name this morning in a note I found with this briefcase, it said that you would be here by nine and that if you had done your job well you would be very sick. My friend I know you did your job well because I am very sick also.”
“I thought this was all to be secret?” replied Riad, a bit shocked.
“I know, my friend. The note told me to explain that I was to meet you before the end because true warriors like us deserve better than to die alone with nothing but the company of infidels.”
Neither of the two sick men spoke again, they just sat and prayed silently for their remaining moments. Each man knew that at exactly nine am they would be at their god’s side. They both sat sickly smiling as the small nuclear device detonated. Times Square was vaporized.
Simultaneously in major cities all across the world similar situations unfolded. Any country allied with the US was attacked, but none to the extent of the US. There were attacks in thirty states. Within minutes the news spread around the globe. Fifteen minutes after the detonations there was a broadcast accepting responsibility.
The static cleared and the familiar face of Osama Bin Laden appeared. The message was short and disturbing. “American Infidels, you and your allies will all be destroyed. The first phase of our attack was more successful than we could have dreamt, the Infidels shall fall!”
The world was thrown into a state of panic. The highways and interstates around the world became jammed with panicked people fleeing for the safety of the countryside. They believed they were escaping certain nuclear death if they left the cities.
Their plan could not have worked better. The millions of people fleeing carried with them a death sentence far worse than they could have imagined. The virus spread like wild fire. There was a complete collapse of emergency services, crash victims died in their vehicles, house fires burned unchecked, and all semblance of order collapsed.
The National Guard was ordered to block all interstate traffic but it was futile. In many cases the guardsmen were over powered by armed civilians. When they tried to defend themselves with force, they were gunned down. There was no stemming the flood of sick from swarming the rural countryside. It was hope that drove them on, and it was hope that sentenced millions more to a horrific death.
By the time the government knew what was happening, it was far too late. The president issued a plea to cease all movement, warning that traveling was only going to spread the virus faster and increase the mortality rate. His plea went unheeded. It seemed none would be spared.
The virus acted fast. Anyone who contracted it only believed they had the flu at first. It progressed so rapidly that by the time the sick realized it was something worse than the flu they were already in the throes of a fever-induced delirium. This aided in the spread of panic. The infected, suffering from diminished mental capacity, resorted to the most basic instincts: fight or flight.
Riad died without knowing what he had released on the American people, but knowing there would be casualties. He believed these casualties would be localized. When the stranger with the briefcase arrived he understood there was a bomb inside but he had not realized that it was nuclear.
The thousands of people he imagined dying were only a miniscule drop in the ocean of deaths that he actually caused. Not even the architects of this intended genocide could have truly grasped its scope.
The bombs had killed hundreds of thousands, being detonated simultaneously at the beginning of the work day in dense areas as they were. The true genius of the plan was made evident during the following days after the explosions.
Within three days American losses had reached 50 million people. These numbers were impossible to substantiate because the infrastructure had all but collapsed.
There were vague stories before the networks went off the air that this was an accelerated form of the Ebola virus. These stories raised more questions than answers. Millions more died each day. In a healthy adult it took three to four days from infection to death. Within two weeks, ninety percent of all human life was snuffed out. This dramatic turn of events was something no one could have foreseen.
He stood proud, even as imminent death approached. Slowly with great effort, “As you can see no one is immune to these, most unholy of events. Millions of our friends, neighbors,” briefly he paused, choking back tears, “and loved ones have already fallen to the disease that is spanning the globe.”
The last words he had spoken seemed to add weight to his withering frame and he fell to his knees. The podium obscured the view, but it was more than obvious the President was vomiting. The dying man gasped for air, unable to catch his breath. Uniformed doctors, most of whom appeared to be in no better condition than their prestigious patient, rushed to his side. Suddenly without any warning the network feed was cut, ending the last Presidential speech ever to be given.
Alex sat silently hanging on every word. Teary eyed in disbelief he vaulted off the couch towards the TV, aloud he said, “This isn’t real, this is like that comedian, yeah that’s it, the crappy comedian who does the presidential impersonations. That’s not really the President there; this is some sick bastard’s idea of a joke. How could I have been so stupid, it’s obvious he’s a fake, he’s too small, doesn’t have the right skin tone and the voice is way off.” Self-assured this was nothing more than a hoax he changed the channel.
Alex checked all 8 of the stations his television would pick up and was horrified to see that every channel was either static or an emergency services message. His assurance fled him as quickly as they had come. His hope waned, only to be replaced with despair and confusion.
Shaking violently, as he was known to do when reason had begun to fail him, Alex screamed, “This is America, this shit doesn’t happen here!”
He jumped to his feet and half ran, half stumbled to the rear of the house. He stormed into the cramped bathroom grabbing the door to the medicine cabinet, knocking over a ceramic vase which shattered as it hit the tank of the toilet. Ceramic shards rained down around his bare feet, slicing the exposed skin. Oblivious, he continued his search. All that was going through his mind was that he needed his pills.
He had taken himself off these pills as he had done every other time they put him on something new, always giving him the spiel about how he needed to give them a few months to start working properly. He gave it a few months, went as long as four on these. They too, only seemed to aggravate his symptoms more than help. The only good side effect, he could see, was that they were capable of causing him to sleep for extended periods of time. He once slept thirty-six hours after taking only four. At this moment, all he wanted was to go to sleep and forget the world. He would work this all out when He woke up.
They were not where he remembered leaving them. He slammed the medicine cabinet so violently the mirrored door shattered raining even more razor sharp projectiles down on himself. This to, he seemed not to notice.
He tore back towards the front of the house. He over turned furniture, smashed holes in the walls, and launched any inanimate objects which dared be in his way.
Entering the kitchen he began slinging the entire contents of cabinets onto the floor with one sweep of his broad arm. To him the time spent searching seemed more an eternity than the 20 minutes it actually was. He jerked the microwave away from the wall with more force than was necessary. It flew nearly to the other side of the kitchen.
He found what he’d been searching for behind the microwave. “How in the fuck did you get there?” He yelled at the bottle, which he then opened and dry swallowed six 300 mg. tablets of Seroquel.
Alex, still very much in the midst of a psychotic episode, calmed down considerably, “More than enough, I will sleep a full day, two if I’m lucky.” Talking to the wake of his most recent destructive outburst, he continued. “Just enough time for a smoke,” he told the ruined kitchen.
He righted the overturned couch and sat down. He then noticed that the emergency services loop had gone to static. The pills had begun very quickly to do their magic. He hadn’t eaten in days so there was nothing in his stomach to slow down his digestion. He got up, nearly falling over the battered coffee table and clicked off the TV. He made his way back to the couch, dropped onto it, and with cigarette and lighter in hand passed out.
He dreamed terrible dreams, but the one that He was having now seemed too good to be true. It was real to Him as His dreams always seemed to be. He was with his brother in Cleveland. His brother, a guitarist was on the road and would have been in Cleveland that very night.
There were no diseased people here, everyone seemed happy to see him. In his dream he was thrilled, the concert was packed and going great. Everything felt fine to him, which was quite unusual. At that moment he was happier than he had been in years. It had been a very long time since last he had dared going into a crowded place. It had been two full years since he’d last even been inside a grocery store, but this night, this concert, everything was perfect.
He began to notice that the crowd was all people he knew. These were all the people he cared most about in the world, all his friends, and loved ones were gathered here. Then for a second he thought he glimpsed His Grandmother, who had raised him since he was seven years old.
At first, it didn’t seem very odd to him that she’d be amongst all those he cared about. It struck him suddenly, his stomach dropped as if he were on a roller coaster. “She’s dead, been dead five years now. That was just my imagination.” He blurted. As if on cue, she appeared before him, an apparition breaking through the crowd. She was all smiles and warmth.
“GET OUT!” She screamed. He stumbled backwards towards the bar, blindly landing on a bar stool. She had changed; he was in shock to see the woman he had most admired was now a grotesque rotted version of herself.
The band stopped playing; this drew his attention in the direction of the stage where he saw what he feared more than death itself. His brother was there holding his guitar in a state best described as living death. “Rick, oh God, Rick, what has happened to you?”
“It is ok little brother, I’m ok now, but you need to go,” said the animated corpse of his brother.
They were all dead all around him, everyone he knew. It was not fear that welled inside him, it was sorrow and shame that they were all dead and he was not. Even in his own dreams he had no sense of self-worth.
He began to cry, and the rapidly decomposing crowd all gave sympathetic looks. They began to fall apart silently with no signs of discomfort or even sorrow, as if they were all resigned to their fates. Most were still smiling when their legs crumbled under the weight of their torsos.
The floor appeared to be no floor at all but some benevolent entity greedily swallowing up all he loved. They fell into the all-encompassing darkness. The darkness was spreading. There were no sounds other than a giggle which he was sure had come from his long dead sister. She died along with his parents in the crash, which altered his waking life forever.
Now there were only four remaining. Still on the stage were his brother and the only three other people he had spent any real time with since leaving High School. He began to cry harder looking at these four people he was now sure he’d never see again.
Rick spoke, “Alex you have to leave, you can’t stay in this place, all that made it home is gone. It’s a new world for you now. Live, you hear me? Live.”
“I don’t understand, what happened to you, why are you dead,” He begged.
“That’s how it has to be,” Rick had tears in his eyes but his voice never faltered. “It’s now the perfect world for you Bro, no people,” at this the three people who knew him best standing just behind his brother laughed.
In unison the three said, “Love ya man,” graciously they stepped off the stage and into the darkness before Alex had to witness their decomposing any further.
“I have to go, I love you Brother, take care of yourself, and no matter what, don’t forget to leave,” Said his dead brother. He added earnestly, “It will be hard, but I know you can do it.”
“I…I… don’t understand,” he was cut off as his brother cranked the volume on his guitar stack and started playing a song Alex knew well, Seasons In The Abyss, by Slayer. Still playing with a last look at his brother and a nod he jumped into the darkness.
He was falling. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been falling, but usually he had panicked at this feeling while dreaming. This time it was different, as if he were comforted by his own weightlessness. After the dream and the sensation of falling ebbed away he slept peacefully for 8 more hours.
It was a day like any other day, the sky was visible through the smudged windows of his little room. The somber grey clouds were motionless. With effort, he rolled on his side to see the time and to find a cigarette. He wasn’t sure how he’d made it to his room, but that was normal. He often found himself in different places than he’d fallen asleep.
Seroquel sleep was his favorite sleep; he often woke with his mind a blank slate. He rubbed his temples, trying to remember. “What happened last night?” Then as in answer a sharp pain tore through his head starting at the nape of his neck continuing around to his eyes. As his eyes blurred and tears began to form it all came back to him. “How did this happen?” He yelled at the ceiling.
He remembered the dream with perfect clarity, his brother, grandmother and all his dead friends trying to warn him away, he whispered, “But from what?”
He got up stumbled through the house towards the living room, all the while surveying the damage from the previous night’s rampage. He turned on the T.V. and searched the channels, all were gone. Static is the only reward his search provided.
“How could this be?” he asked aloud.
“No one to run the stations you goof ball,” he heard his brother say in the back of his head.
Checking the stereo He only found an emergency services loop, “By order of the President of the United States of America, all citizens are to cease all movement. The United States has been attacked by terrorists using small nuclear devices, as well as biological weaponry. The only way to stop the spread of this virus is to cease all movement. If you believe yourself to have been infected, do not seek medical help. Find a secure location and quarantine yourself. Seeking help will only spread the disease further. There is no cure; I repeat there is no cure.”
“FUCK YOU!” He yelled, which freshened the unbearable pain in his head. He paced from room to room trying to grasp what had happened. All his thoughts were confused glimpses of horror fantasy coated in a thin layer of reality.
“I’m going crazy”, he chanted to himself under his breath. He walked through the house, looking in every closet, every cabinet, and drawer, as if searching for some lost artifact of sanity, he collapsed on the couch. The pills he had taken the night before had not yet run their course. He dozed fitfully.
Half asleep he heard a loud bang from the rear of the house. Alex jumped off the couch in a run, tripped over the over turned coffee table and slammed into the TV stand knocking the television to the floor. Stunned he regained his footing and picked his way to the front door.
Silently he begged God that the noise had been His brother. “Rick, Bro is that you?” No answer came as he stood on the porch looking around. Then he heard it again, this time he heard breaking glass.
He couldn’t contain his excitement, “Bro where are you?” he ran, nearly falling as he rounded the corner at full speed. To his disappointment, the yard was empty.
It was cold out; the calm was eerie this early March morning. Alex was grief stricken; in that moment it occurred to him he would never see his brother again. Then he remembered the noise. He slowly continued around his house, near the rear there were three hard cover novels on the ground.
“Alex, over here,” Issued a raspy voice he nearly recognized.
“Who is it?” He asked startled as he turned slowly around.
There in the window of his neighbor’s house, was what looked like a zombie. The once robust family man looked like something from a late night sci-fi marathon. The discharge appeared green in the early morning light and steamed as his neighbor leaned out the window to vomit. It oozed from his nose, ears, and mouth. The eye sockets seemed empty from where Alex stood. He needed to get closer to see if this man were really alive. Being prone to hallucinations, as he was, he wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was real.
Alex had known John for five years and was sure this wasn’t his neighbor. This was not the man he had sat with and watched his two little girls play in the yard. Alex remember watching, longing for a family of his very own. He thought this is someone else for sure. I just saw John last week; this poor guy is at least 50 lbs. lighter. He began to walk closer.
“Stop,” yelled His neighbor. The exertion obviously pained him; he groaned and began dry heaving.
“I, I,” stuttered Alex, realizing his folly, but could not think of what to say.
After gaining his composure, as well as he was able,”Alex is your phone still working?”
“I don’t know, I have a dial tone but I haven’t talked to anyone in several days. My brother is out of town,” answered Alex. “He should be calling soon.” He added.
“I’m going to call you in a minute, I need to talk to you, it’s important.” He wheezed. There was pity in John’s voice; he knew what Alex was denying. The chances that his brother was still alive in all this were very unlikely.
Alex was back on the couch where he spent most of His time, “waiting to die,” he had mused to a friend of his and his brother. He had laughed at the time, but all the while, in the back of his mind, he believed it to be true.
After about five minutes the phone rang, “Hello John?”
“Yeah, how you holding up Alex, I would have called sooner but I thought you left with your brother.” John was having trouble catching His breath.
“I’m sorry, are you guys ok?” He felt like such an ass for not checking on John and his family.
“We were all infected, my girls and my wife died earlier this morning.” John’s voice had diminished to the point where Alex had to turn the volume up on the phone to full just to hear him.
Alex was stunned, again he thought of how he had envied this man for all he had. Now this same man, his only friend beyond the members of his brother’s band, had lost everything. He was now losing his life. Tears began to fill His eyes, as he thought of John’s daughters and how young they were.
“John, I am so sorry,” Alex felt that to be inadequate to tell a man who just lost two children and His wife, but was at a loss of what else to say.
“Thank you,” John was weeping, and just holding the phone up was more than a task for him, but he needed help so he continued. “Alex, how are you feeling, are you showing any symptoms?”
Alex thought a minute, his head was pounding. This was more than he could deal with, he thought, yet he was here. “I have a bad headache, but that’s normal. Other than that I feel fine.” He felt foolish complaining of a headache to a dying man.
“When was the last time you were around anyone? Try and remember, even if it was just a quick trip to the store.”
“It’s been at least 4 days, the day my brother left. I went to the store for smokes.” He answered.
“That’s great Alex, you have been spared.” John choked. Although his entire family was dead, and he too would be following shortly, he meant it.
Alex had always been kind in their brief talks over the years. John knew he was troubled, he drank too much, and listened to heavy metal music to loud. John also knew that if ever there was a problem; Alex was the first one at his door to help. He thought of the time his wife was hospitalized for two weeks due to complications with her pregnancy. Alex had done all his yard work, made sure his trash was taken out, and came by at least once a day to see if he needed anything. He thought to himself, not everyone would agree, but I couldn’t have picked a better person to survive.
“But everyone else is dying, what am I supposed to do?” Alex was trying to stifle his audible sobbing.
“Listen to me Alex, God doesn’t make mistakes. You have been spared for a reason. There will be other survivors, not everyone will die. The people who survive this must ban together and help each other. You must go and seek them out.” John spoke, as reassuringly as his failing health would allow.
“What about my brother, I can’t leave, what if he comes back and I am gone?” Alex began to feel dizzy, thinking he would surely pass out. He closed his eyes waiting for it to pass.
“Alex, you should write him a letter and tape it to the door, tell him you have gone to find other survivors and that he should do the same.” Replied John, he then added, “He will find you, if he makes it, he will find you.” John thought this is not the time for sugar coating.
John began to throw up uncontrollably, he fell to the floor with a bang, leaving Alex feeling hopeless, not being able to help. Alex waited for quite a long while, but could still hear John gasping so he remained on the line.
“Alex, you still there,” gasped John, winded but still alive.
“Yeah, I’m still here,” relieved to hear John’s voice, even as desperate as it sounded.
“Alex I want you to take my truck. Grab my camping gear from the shop and get out of here,” he then hesitated, before saying, “but I need a favor first.”
“Anything John, just ask,” quickly replied Alex.
“I want to be with my family in heaven. Suicide is a sin, being merciful is not.” John had more despair in his voice than Alex had thought possible before now.
“OK John,” he answered before what was asked, had had time to sink in.
“Out in my shop is a gun safe, take everything in it, if not for protection, you will have to hunt.
“Are you sure this is what you want,” praying he would say no.
“There is no one else to ask, all our neighbors are either dead, or they left.” Then as an afterthought added, “those that left are most likely dead as well.”
“I will do it,” God only, knows how, he thought.
“Alex after you are finished and ready to leave, set fire to the house. I can’t stand the thought of my family rotting away like this. The fire will kill the virus.
“John, I wish this hadn’t happened, I am scared, and I am so sorry for what has happened to you guys.” Alex cried.
“Listen Alex, you will be fine, and what happened was not you’re doing. The signs were there all along, but no one thought it was possible. You are a good man; I want you to get away. Go west; get somewhere where there are no buildings and no people. Take all you find with you and start over, but don’t forget us. Tell your children what happened, so they will know better than to do what we have done. Alex, remember this was an attack. Sooner or later the ones who did this will show up, if they survived.” John was becoming delirious from the pain, and was barely audible now.
“John I will never forget you and your family, you had what I’ve always dreamt of having.” Alex was crying again as he said this.
“You will go on to have beautiful children, and you will be a great father,” whispered John through his own tears.
John gave Alex the combination to his gun safe, and told him where he had his spare key to the shop hidden. After telling him where he’d be in the house, he hung up the phone. He could no longer breathe without serious pain and talking was something he’d never do again.
Alex went into the shop. He felt as if he were dreaming all this, for surely this couldn’t be real. He opened the safe, took out a rifle. He loaded it with bullets from a fresh box stored neatly at the bottom.
He found the spare keys to John’s truck. On the key ring was a picture of John’s little girls, forever frozen in time. Their smiles encased in the plastic picture holder his wife had given him. The sight of those little girls, so happy, so far away from where they were now made fresh tears well in Alex’s eyes. Maybe it was John’s words, but at that moment Alex felt a strong desire to be gone from this place.
He only took one gun, he’d come back for the rest of the things shortly. He had something to do. He went into his house and got a cigarette and walked back outside. Slowly he skirted the lifeless bushes, it was still very cold and they had not yet awoken from their winter slumber. He slowly approached his neighbor’s home and made his way around to the master bedroom’s window.
Clearly he could see John through the window kneeling on the foot of the bed praying over the bodies of his wife and children.
Alex slowly raised the rifle to his shoulder; looking through the scope he targeted John’s head. He knew that if he hit him anywhere else or merely wounded him that John would lay there suffering even more than he was now. There would be no way to enter to complete the task without getting infected. The rifle shook in his inexperienced hands. He was sweating despite the cold, he attempted to steady himself, then prepared to fire.
“God help me please,” he squeezed the trigger expecting this to finally be over. Nothing happened; he went weak in the knees nearly falling to the ground. “You gave your word to your friend, now do this!” He demanded of himself.
Surprised at the authority in his own voice he checked the rifle and realized the safety was on. He raised the rifle once more sighting his friends head and slowly squeezed the trigger. As if he knew it were time, John raised his hands towards heaven. The report was deafening, it appeared to Alex that in death John had embraced his family as he fell forward. His friend would no longer suffer.
The sound had scared Alex; he stood for a moment with silent ears ringing. Suddenly he became stricken with the fear that he must be having a psychotic episode. If he had hallucinated all these events, that meant he had just murdered his neighbor. He waited barely breathing like a deer in headlights. He was expecting at any moment for his neighbors to come running down the road screaming, “Murderer! Murderer!” This he even pictured in his mind.
After five minutes or five hours he did not know, there were still no sirens, no police, nothing at all. He was all alone.
Aloud he said, “This is such a small town, if everyone here is dead, then everyone must really be dead.” His own words chilled him.
He stood frozen a few minutes more then slowly walked back to the shop. He began packing what he needed into John’s truck.
He checked every house on his block, yelling from a distance but there were no replies. In a few windows he saw that the corpses of the old and young were indistinguishable from one another. We are all the same in death he thought, just bodies. He could see from the distorted faces that several had died in pain, he felt a twinge of guilt. Then he whispered, “What was I to do shoot everyone on my street? A sane person wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
He wrote his brother a lengthy letter explaining what had happened, and detailing where he planned to go. Then he burned every house on his street except his own. He climbed into John’s truck and drove to the end of the street and just sat and watched the fires. He hoped and prayed someone would see the flames and come, no one did. After an hour of waiting, he left the place he had called home for over twenty years. He never saw it again.