R. D. Girvan
She twisted her ankle, stumbled off the path and fell upon the fence, jack-knifed over the pickets. The fence, its posts rotted from too much rain and not enough maintenance, wobbled beneath her weight, wowing back and forth.
Alarmed, Pete watched from his kitchen window. Sarah stood up and steadied herself, pale fingers gleaming white against weathered wood. He waited for blood to bloom on her ripped white tee-shirt. He could see the torn fabric, even from that distance, and he held his breath, hoping she could make it into the house by herself. He couldn’t risk touching her.
Pete went to the open door and called her name. She turned towards him, his eldest daughter home from school, and followed his voice. Pete encouraged her up the front walk, coaxed her through the living room and down the hall to her room.
Pete closed the door and listened to her bump around. He leaned his forehead against the door, closed his eyes, tried to pretend that these dull thumping noises were like when she was a tween, dancing in her room. The noise and chaos of her teenage years had been a constant irritant to Pete. It had just been too damn much. Too much angst, too much boy-band music, too much shrieking and make up and spending and clothes, too much money spent feeding too many extra mouths.
The noises coming through the wall were nothing like that. There was no rhythm to her movements, no singing, no laughing. She had already lost vocal abilities and most motor skills. She had barely made it home. Right now, there was too much silence. Right now, he was wishing for a little Boyz II Men.
The four Campbell kids had been away at University when the Sickness broke out. Sarah was the third back, her brothers were already home. Mikayla would arrive last, as usual – she was her father’s daughter when it came to timeliness. Even when she started out early, she always wound up late.
Pete knocked his head gently on Sarah’s door, pressed his palm flat against it, curled his fingers like he was trying to hold on to her through the door.
He couldn’t remember: Was lack of bleeding stage three or four of the Sickness? And did it come before or after loss of speech? Not that it fucking mattered.
When the Sickness first came a-calling, Pete had gone to town to get a check-up and some news. No one trusted the network news much in this small community, not that they had much information to offer anyway.
He had asked Christian Olson, his high school buddy, who was now their family doctor. During the check-up, Chris had given him an official handout, a copy of a copy of a copy, with print so blurry it was barely decipherable. That had the curious effect of minimizing the shock value; Pete had to read it several times before he realized that what looked like “rough” meant “cough”; “week” was “weak”; “plaque” was actually “plague.”
He checked on Diedre. She was sitting right where he had left her, in the sunroom chair. All the noisy activity of Pete calling Sarah, leading her to her room – Diedre had noticed none of it.
“That was Sarah,” Pete told her, “Makayla should be home soon. Maybe in time for dinner tonight.” No response.
Pete washed the dishes, his mother’s mother’s china, talking to Diedre as he did. They had divorced three years previously, but still, she had been the first person he called, when the Sickness struck. And then, against Christian’s advice, he had called all the kids, too.
“Why,” his friend had asked, “would you do that when they are preparing a vaccine right now? All you have to do is wait for it. That’s all you have to do. Go home, quarantine yourself – your place is so far out of town that won’t be hard – and wait for the vaccine.”
“The kids would be safer here, too, in quarantine.”
“Pete, it’s not a quarantine if you have everyone there. It’s like oxygen masks on an airplane – take care of yourself first, so you can take care of them.”
“I can take care of them better, if they come home. The danger is that in the city, so many people around, they’ll be exposed to it, they could get sick.”
Chris slung his stethoscope around his neck and stood up to leave the examining room. He shook his head at Pete, said, “No. The infection rate is in the 90 percent range. If they stay there, they could quarantine themselves until the vaccine. You call them home and they risk exposing themselves to it. The real danger is that they will get sick. And bring the Sickness home with them.”
Pete’s fingers froze while doing up his shirt, one button half-way through.
“Our family belongs together, Chris, no matter what. Don’t be such a fucking idiot,” he said.
Nolan had been the first home. Their second child, he had driven his old truck straight through the night. Lucid when he arrived, he told his Dad that all the gas stations through the Rockies were out of fuel. He had driven until the truck rattled, choked, coughed and stopped at the far edge of town. Walked all the way home from there. The streets were deserted, he said. The Sickness was having a far greater effect than they had seen on TV.
Pete told Diedre about how calling everyone home was Plan A, how he thought they could all make it until the vaccine was handed out, what he had decided to do as Plan B if they couldn’t. She didn’t say much about either alternative.
“Christian didn’t like my plans,” he told her, “kept saying I should isolate myself, like a quarantine. Said it wouldn’t be effective if I brought you and the kids home, too. As if I had a choice. What else was I going to do?”
Diedre, sitting in the corner of the sunroom, remained silent.
After Nolan, Troy was next to make it home. He lived closest, but had waited until it was almost too late. Waking up to snarling heavy equipment and metal clanging on pavement, he watched City workers raise an instant fence made from 12-foot steel panels. The same kind used for crowd control during marathons or the Santa Claus Parade, these panels went right down the middle of the road outside his apartment.
Troy had strained to see every direction though a crack at the corner of his curtains, keeping the light off in order not to be backlit and noticed. The cloak-and-dagger stuff made him feel foolish until he saw them in deep shadow: rows of police in riot gear, black matte helmets, kevlar vests, bristling with weapons flashing dully.
Troy couldn’t tell, he later told his dad, if they were there to keep people out, or in. Regardless, he would be noticed, if he fired his car up and drove down Main Street. Then he remembered his mountain bike in the storage locker, downstairs.
Troy grabbed his backpack, replaced his engineering textbooks with water and some food. He stood in his galley kitchen, in the darkness. It was quiet, for the end of the World. He looked around the second place he had ever lived, reached under the sink for a flashlight and the hammer. Taking the stairs down, he unlocked his bike, pumped up the tires and carried it into the night.
Eleven hours later, he coasted down the driveway, the tick-tick-tick of his idling gears reminding Pete of when Troy used to ride home from practice.
Pete moved through the next few hours on autopilot. He hoped Mikayla would arrive soon. Time was short for most of the others. Diedre had completely stopped talking and now moved so little that Pete didn’t need to confine her to a room. Sarah and Nolan were eerily quiet, with only the occasional thumping noise coming from their respective rooms. Troy said he was starting to feel weird and was no longer hungry.
At first, when Pete saw Mikayla in the driveway, it was a relief. Then he noticed that she had walked into the garage door, turned around, staggered away a few paces, turned back, walked into the door again. His youngest. Acting like a fucking automatic vacuum cleaner. Well, there was his answer.
Later, at the dinner table, Pete checked his wine glass once more. Empty. He was the only one drinking. Or eating, for that matter.
He poured more wine and looked at his family arranged around the table. He had placed them in their usual seats. Diedre was motionless at the opposite end of the table, head tilted slightly, hair falling over one eye. Troy and Mikayla sat along one side, facing Sarah and Nolan.
The TV murmured at the empty living room and the quiet group around the dining table. There were few stations on the air, hardly any news anchors. Mostly previously taped shows. Live news centred on the delay of the Vaccine. At least two weeks, they said.
They were extremely ill now, his family. The Sickness had robbed them of all brain activity except that required to power basic motor skills. The delay in inoculation would kill them.
Pete drank his wine and picked at a rib eye. No point in cooking a turkey, he had figured, no one else would be eating. He had always been a steak and potatoes kind of guy, anyway, so this last meal was fitting. Diedre had been more of the healthy salad type, but that hadn’t helped her any, had it?
Pete poked through the remaining pills in the silver candy dish, selected a couple of fat orange ones and chased them down with wine. No bitter aftertaste with these ones, not like the T3s he had taken earlier. Were they for cold and flu or back pain? He couldn’t remember. He had gone through the medicine cabinet, emptying childproof bottles into the dish, popping pills out of blister packs until he had filled it. He was starting to feel a little woozy. Teary. Time for Plan B.
“Let’s have a toast,” he said, using his spoon to tap on his wine glass, like he usually did at family gatherings. No need to call for silence, tonight.
“Happy to meet; sorry to part; happy to meet again. It’s good to have you all home,” he said. Pete emptied the dish and drank his wine.
R. D. Girvan writes suspense and other fiction. She lives on an acreage in Western Canada with her family.