The day no longer mattered. The seasons were no longer discernible. The smell of fall leaves, the dew in the early morning, and the aroma of the air after a fresh rain—gone.
Mornings now brought with it the wind, and odors of those who had died. No one knew how many were dead, but most knew how many they had lost. No one knew whether the virus itself claimed the most victims, or if it was the government’s steps to combat the new infectious and quickly mutating disease.
Most of those who remained did not keep track of the days as mankind once did, marked with calendars and dates—but simply tracked the rising and setting of the sun. Although there were rumors of groups of men who had gathered, making it their sole purpose to collect the histories of the once great and clean world, recording from the date of the second fall of mankind, that they simply referred to as The Apocalypse.
As the sun rose that morning, Karl sat up from his makeshift bed of cardboard and plastic. The sky was dark orange. The residue of the cleansing still hung in the air. The winds blew a wet stench, with a humid, putrid odor. He often wondered how long it would take to get used to the smell that made his throat want to shut.
It was hard to hear anything over the gusts of wind, but some sounds found their way through in the lulls between.
He opened his suitcase and took few pieces of cardboard, placing them in the ever-expanding traveling home he affectionately called Sam, which was short for the factory which manufactured this particular suitcase.
First things first, he thought to himself as his stomach still ached of hunger from the night before.
Hating to leave the safety of the alley with two exits, which was always comforting in case of an attack, there was nothing to eat or drink here. It had been two days since he ate, and at least a day since he had had anything to drink. He walked out onto the street where a few dozen people wandered about.
Seeing a trashcan, he began to forage. With the lid already removed, his hopes were not too high for finding anything of value. Near the bottom of the trashcan, he found a fast food cup with almost three swallows in it. It had been there a while, and there was no specific taste, but it was wet, and just enough to remove the sand from his throat. Now if he could just find some food. Since the fall and end of order, pillaged supermarkets, and ransacked homes littered the landscape. At this point, either you hunt and scavenge, or purchase from a not-so-honest black-market vendor. They too quickly evolved with the changing times and opened shops almost the day after the cleansing.
Of course, in these times, money no longer had any value. As far as the vendors were concerned, they desired only a few choice items, such as water, food, weapons, ammunition, and services. Some services they required were as simple as finding someone or something for the vendor. Others are as detestable after the fall as they were before.
Slavery had once again become a part of life, only instead of singling out a particular race such as African, Chinese or Indian as was done in the past, people who were weak were often the targets of slave traders, mostly women, and children, but occasionally men as well. Men were a rare case. Most men—even the weak ones put up a fight against slave traders and were often either killed in the capture or wounded beyond use. Feeling refreshed from the few swallows, he gathered his senses and looked at the rising sun, which gave its warmth. With the morning winds dying down, the stench relieved its relentless pungent suffocation, and he decided to look elsewhere for some food. Because he was on the edge of the city, it was easy to make treks into the outer suburbs to search for things. It was far too dangerous to travel too deeply into the suburbs because of the bandits and psychopaths.
One of the strange things that came with the fall was the changing role that cities and small towns played in humanity. Cities had once been the refuge of violence and disorder for criminals and gangs, while smaller towns were safer from most of that. Now, however, most of the survivors ran to bigger cities looking for help and the security of order and government, while small towns turned into gang sanctuaries, where bandits could do what they willed with no recourse from any remaining law.
Small towns turned into personal kingdoms of warlords and gangs, who easily moved in and took over without much resistance. There were no police, no laws, no enforcers—humankind had reverted to a Darwintopia, survival of the fittest. Humankind now reduced to animals by one swoop of a little-known virus.
As he walked toward the suburbs, he stayed on what was left of the main roads, being sure to stay aware of an escape route in case something happened. It was hard enough to walk with Sam but running was almost impossible. If he had to, however, he would leave Sam behind to save himself.
The suburb was only about two miles from where he was, and he was sure he could find food and be back to the city before nightfall. The closer a suburb was to a major city, the safer it was. As he approached the streets of the small neighborhood, he began to feel a little uneasy.
He was hoping to get in and out with a full belly before dark, but he had not anticipated what the day would reveal. Nevertheless, he was used to that. Each day brought with it new challenges in this new world. The challenge now was to eat, drink, and sleep—just another day in the hell that he called life.
As he approached the edge of the suburban streets, he began to look around to see what was taking place.
He had only traveled here a couple miles, but the scenery and atmosphere had quickly changed from the secure quietness of the city to a somewhat cluttered landscape filled with broken-down houses and a moderately large field to his right.
The sun looked as if it was about the end of the second-quarter day, which was a little disconcerting. Knowing that would only leave him about half a day of light to explore and start his trek back to the city. There were various plumes of black smoke rising across the horizon, so it was evident there were quite a few residents in the area. The only question was who they were.
The only weapon he had for protection was Sam, which was good for a bash or two, but would not really withstand any prolonged engagement. He played with the grip on the suitcase as if testing in his mind how he would swing it if he had to. To his left was a string of houses. One house, obviously occupied, had a couple of men talking in the yard.
Approaching cautiously to get a feel for the area, he stepped closer. An average height man who looked to be in his mid to late thirties greeted him. He was unshaven and dirty, holding a wrench in his left hand.
“Greetings,” he said to the man as he shifted his grip once again on his suitcase.
“Hey! What’s up?” the dirty man said as he continued toward what appeared to be the remnant of a vehicle.
“Hi, I was wondering if you could give me some directions,” he said. Setting his suitcase down he made a mental note of the position of the handle in case he had to lunge for it.
“Directions? Well, in front of you is Scott, that’s me, behind you is hell and if you keep walking in the direction you were headed, you should hit the abyss by the end of the day.”
“Ah, my names Karl, but friends call me Lunk. Well, at least they used to when I had friends.”
“I won’t tell you what my friends call me, but you can call me Scott,” The dirty man said laughing.
The second man behind the vehicle slowly poked his head around and into sight, “Don’t let him fool ya, he ain’t got no friends neither,” he said in a gruff rumbling voice. He bellowed out a huge laugh.
“My name is Pete. Where you headed Lunk?”
“I was hoping to do a little exploring and maybe find a little food. I have a long trip ahead of me and need some supplies.”
“You got anything for trade?” said Scott with almost eager anticipation as he looked at the suitcase on the ground.
“Not much. I have a few articles of clothing, a pair of socks, some cardboard, a blanket, and a couple ibuprofen.”
“Ooh, we have a winner!” said Pete in his growl.
“Alright, what should we give ‘em Pete?” asked Scott.
“How about a squirrel, how many those profen’s you got?” asked Pete.
“Well, I think I have five or six, but I would like to keep a couple, how about I give you three?” said Lunk.
“Three, huh, squirrel gonna cost you four, but it’s already cooked and all,” said Pete.
“Cool, good trade,” said Lunk.
Laying his suitcase down he opened it. Scott watched over his shoulder to see if there was any treasure unmentioned in the conversation. He was surprised to see the contents were exactly as Lunk described.
“Do you mind if I eat here?” asked Lunk.
“Not at all, we can sit here and make fun of Scott if you want,” said Pete.
The three of them laughed, and for a moment, joy filled the air, a fleeting glimpse of the old world seemed to illuminate around them. The squirrel was good, even though it was a few days old; it was much fresher than anything Lunk had eaten in weeks. He wanted to spend some time here and learn more about the burbs before venturing too much further. If the residents were anything like these two, he felt like luck would be on his side.
TAMING OF THE FLU
Lunk handed his squirrel stick back to Scott after cleaning it of any residue and placed all the bones in a neat pile at his feet next to the suitcase he was sitting on. Scott took the stick and looked at Lunk puzzled, then threw the stick over his shoulder in a random direction.
Lunk leaned over to ask Pete if he was fixing the car, but before he could speak, Pete answered as if to read his mind. “Nope...I can’t get this thing running. I’m just trying to get the air from the tires.”
He continued talking while producing a small tank he was trying to attach to the tire of the disabled vehicle.
“No cars work after the cleansing took place. Somethin’ happened to them when the bombs went off. Everything with a computer stopped working.”
“Stinking pieces of crap!” Scott barked.
“They had us fooled, every single one of us! I almost went to the city that day, you know, for the antidote. But instead, we went fishing.” Scott looked over at Pete.
Pete looked back with a blank stare, then as if to remember what he was going to say spoke up in his bear-like growl: “We were far enough away, but we could still see, hear and feel the whole thing. I thought the earth was exploding.”
“How did you survive?” Scott asked Lunk.
“I was in the city a couple miles from here, but they didn’t bomb there, I think the closest major city that was cleansed was about ten to fifteen miles from me, but I’m not sure. All I know is I was on my way to work when it happened.”
Lunk looked off in the distance as he spoke, the memory of that day coming as if it was yesterday instead of months ago.
“I was in my car, and after the flash, I couldn’t see. It was like I looked into the sun. I crashed into a ditch, I think. I laid there for hours waiting for an ambulance, or someone to help. I couldn’t see a thing. But I heard the gates of hell open, the screams, and the terror, cars crashing all around, people yelling and screaming. While I lay there in that ditch, I heard a car coming my way. I wanted to get out of the way, but I still couldn’t see.”
His memory vividly recounted the events. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just lay there. I don’t know how close it came to me, but as it came into the ditch, it hit my car and rolled past me. All I felt was the wind from the car on my face as it passed. I waited for it to fall on me, to crush me. But after the crash, there was nothing.” He paused again before continuing. “I don’t know how many hours I lay there until I could see again. But once I could see, that’s when I started talking with people in the streets, and they were saying that it was the government. How they told everyone with the virus that they had discovered a cure and they could get it free if they went to the health departments. I guess if you think about it, they actually did have the cure—sick as it may seem.”
Scott was looking at Pete as if to ask if he could speak. Lunk noticed but did not ask.
Pete stumbled about his words then spoke, “Yeah. Death is the only real cure Lunk. My ma had the virus. I don’t know why I didn’t get it, I just didn’t. She got it about four weeks before the cleansing. She was afraid of catching it, so she pestered me to take her down and get the shot so we wouldn’t get it. Finally, after a few weeks, I took her down and got the shot. I got it too, but I guess it was already too late for her. She must have already had the virus and didn’t know it. A couple of weeks later she got the fevers, she was so blazing we put her in the tub and kept putting cool water and ice in it. I called the emergency, but they said they had stopped taking virus patients because there was nothing they could do, and it was too dangerous transporting people with the flu because they could infect others.”
Pete glanced over to Scott, and then looked back to Lunk.
“So, the military showed up and quarantined our house. After about a week, the soldiers just left with no warning. My mother seemed to have got better. You know, you ever have a motorcycle, and just before you run out of gas, all of the sudden it runs real good like it got a burst of energy, then it dies? It was like that. She got up as if she was never sick and asked if I wanted breakfast. I was watching TV, and I heard something break in the kitchen. I went in to see what was going on, and she was on the floor on her hands and knees, growling.”
Placing both of his hands over his face for a moment, Pete rubbed his eyes exhaling a sigh.
“I didn’t know what to think. I said, Ma? She turned to look at me, and her eyes were pure black. She jumped to her feet and ran at me grabbing the hot iron skillet from the stove without thinking twice. When her body hit me, it was like a truck, and before I could even yell, she was on top of me hitting me with the hot pan. It’s weird how you remember the strangest things. It was like slow motion when I think about looking at her hand holding that skillet, and it sizzled and burned, yet she held on. After being hit a few times, one caught me real good in the head—I instantly reacted with a punch, and knocked her out cold.”
“What?” shocked at the story he just heard, and even though he acted in disbelief, he had seen some of what Pete described in other people over the past few weeks, and knew it was true.
“Yeah,” Pete continued, “You need to realize, at the time I was about fifty pounds heavier, and my ma is only about one hundred pounds wet and carrying that frying pan.”
Pete and Scott both gave a half-hearted attempt at laughing, but the pain was obvious in Pete’s eyes.
Pete spoke once more, “The lucky ones are the ones who got the cure, the ones who are dead.”
Scott turned to Lunk, “I hate the government for what they did. I don’t know what’s worse—the cleansing, the shot, or the flu virus itself? Which killed more people? After the cleansing, where did all the soldiers go? The soldiers were everywhere after martial law, and then right before the cleansing, gone—haven’t seen them since.”
Lunk spoke in a weak, almost self-ridiculing voice. “Well, I don’t know what to say. I’m still not even sure what all took place. All I know is I need to find my son and get back to living.”
“Living, hmm... Good luck with that then,” said Scott.
Pete spoke up once more, “Why doesn’t someone do something? How come nothing is being done? Where is the government, the police, the doctors?”
“The lawyers, don’t forget the lawyers...I’m going to sue!” Scott chimed in and began laughing.
“No, I’m serious Scott. This can’t be how it ends for us,” Pete said.
Lunk shifted his seat around trying to find a comfortable spot somewhere in the center of Sam, but his suitcase was on the uneven ground.
“I don’t really know what is going to happen, but I know I have to find my son. It’s been weeks since the cleansing, and since I’ve heard anything from him. My cell phone stopped working after the cleansing and the phone lines I guess are down too. Once the power went out, I had no choice but to go searching for him,” Lunk began to grit his teeth a little in frustration.
“Hey, it’s getting late. Stay here with us tonight. We have a nice place that is fortified, and we are far enough from the burbs that we don’t get bothered much,” Pete said.
Scott then spoke out. “Yeah! It will be fun, like a sleepover,” and he started laughing aloud again.
“That would be great, thank you,” said Lunk.
After another hour or two of talking, the three of them went inside. The sun turned a dark purple as it set in the skyline behind what was left of the horizon. They stepped inside and a heavy door shut behind them, with many locks and contraptions to keep the door from opening, including a five-foot section of an iron train rail placed in a catch on the floor and locked into place in the middle of the door with a chain and pulley.
“I guess that will work”, said Lunk.
“Yeah, we are totally protected in here at night,” said Scott.
“Unless they catch the place on fire,” said Lunk.
Scott quickly looked at Pete in horror, he had never thought of that scenario. Pete just laughed and the three of them headed for the front room.