1573 words (6 minute read)

Chapter 4:

            S’not so bad after all. Fact, I kinda perfer the solitude. Nights are coolin’ right down and food’s just ‘bout everywhere. Crazy lot are easier to avoid up here an’ there’s water when I want it. Dunno why anyone’d stay down there. Feelin’ fine. Probably just the government tryin’ ta scare us is all. I mean those crazy lot are crazy, but maybe it’s not from the air. Or maybe after all these months, the earth’s just got right back to normal. Mighta just needed a break from all the people and the cars and factories and crap like that. Ha! I betcha the earth was just detoxin’ us away, like those celebrities used to do with their juices. All the money in the world and they were livin’ offa vergetable juice. Betcha they’d eat a Big Mac now if they had a chance. Maybe that’s what I need, hot food. Just still so damned hungry. Ate a whole pantry outta a random house an’ still got that emptiness deep down in ma’ guts. Prob’ just so used to starving’, my body didn’t know what to do with it all. Well that’s for damn sure. Shit a ton a’ bricks and cramps for hours, but all that food was worth it. Guess you’re not supposed to eat so much after so little. Well, damn it, I’m celebratin’! Deserve it too. Leg uz all closed up, but all the drugs I found aren’t killin’ the fever...Helpin’ the pain though, and I got the whole a’ Long Island to explore.

                                                            *****

            That night, they split two granola bars as they recounted their stories of the day the earth betrayed them. That’s how they all really felt about it, even though the scientists had been warning everyone for years. Rising sea levels, holes in the ozone layer, even the swiftly rising temperatures still didn’t seem fair enough warning to those left behind. Somewhere in their consciousness, each survivor felt that their very world had turned against them, almost as in a personal affront. And Chad and Anna-Lee had somehow made it all the way from South Carolina, where the P-temp had hit earlier. They had raced the mercury in their thermometer, climbing ever north, as the red in the glass on their windshield did the same. They had started by car, at night, and then as the world went mad, they took the back roads, air conditioning blasting, and traveling through the day.

            “We saw our first real infected somewhere in Jersey. The roads were all blocked by then and it was soon after that we had to abandon the car. I guess you could say we were lucky. We left home before it was all really certain. Were on a roadtrip, we were. Honestly, we were only about 6 hours ahead of that newscast, and heard it in the car. I don’t mind admitting we were glad our trip was taking us north on the off-chance anyhow. Anna Lee had those news-casters scare-mongering on the TV day and night for weeks. Hints of the sickness in South America, then creepin’ right into our own backyard. Guess they weren’t really mongerin’ though, cuz they were right. It all happened like they said. Wasn’t til New York’s armpit state that we saw it with our own eyes. Pulled off for some gas, one a’ those rest stops with the self-serve guys. “Cept there was no one. Not a soul. The whole rest-stop was abandoned. And we’ve done this trip at all hours, ya see Anna Lee’s ma lives in Maine, and we never saw a Jersey rest stop like this. There’s always somebody somewhere, grabbin’ a soda, takin’ a piss or something.’ But not this time. I pulled up, and we just kinda looked at each other, we did. And before we could say how weird it really was, I saw a man start at us from the building. He was kinda loping down the steps from the Starbuck’s, but when he saw our car, he picked up speed right quick. Charged right at us ‘fore I could even lock them doors.”

            Here, Anna-Lee shuddered. The group could barely make out her silhouette in the camping lantern’s dim light, but all they felt it. Chad put his arm around her as he went on, “Bastard grabbed her right outta the seat! Well almost anyway. Her seatbelt saved her. And I always laughed at her for it. Yep, as I was getting ready to roll down the window to ask him what the hell was going on around here, he grabbed and pulled her door right open, ripping at her arm and kinda frothing at the mouth. But that seatbelt held her just a sec of time enough for me to rip right back and hit the gas. Didn’t stop for a mile, didn’t even talk, when that damned gas-light started blinkin’ red again.”

            Anna-Lee sat up and said quietly, “Chad didn’t see his eyes. They were wet. Wetter than eyes have ever been. And it was more than the frothing, it was the gruntin’ and the heat comin’ off his skin. I knew it was no anomaly.” Olivia thought she saw Chads arm snap tighter for a second, but she couldn’t be sure in the dimness, and Anna-Lee went on, softer, accent full-on, “That P-temp was real and that’s what it’s gonna do to us.”

            The rest of the story was the same, the realizations, the panic, the anger and then the cold, stomach-clenching fear. They had to abandon their car soon after, but were able to steal another and get into Brooklyn right before the bridges closed. Those six extra hours for their random road-trip saved their lives. Chad guessed that they wouldn’t have lasted a day in Manhattan, from the stories other travelers had told. But, that stolen car was old, the AC was shitty and they didn’t even know if AC would protect them anyway. The radio broadcasts were all saying different things, when they were sayin’ at all. So that’s how they had ended up in the sewers of Long Island. Sold some of their rations to latch onto a group who talked of The Haven and stayed with them ‘til it turned sour. With no idea about Long Island, barely any rations, a run with a self-serving and crappy first group, and no map, it was amazing to Olivia that they had made it this far. She wanted to question them, search for missing pieces, but somehow Chad made it all add up. They had met other infected, as well as other starving groups, along their way, and had somehow got through. And all the while with Anna-Lee in that frilly dress.

            One by one, the rest of the group gave shorthand versions of their own stories, with Olivia listening sharply for any changes. Ned’s version had altered twice already (though it seemed more harmless exaggerations than anything else), and Hume’s grew sparser with each recounting. Jenny’s was the same each time, always short, and with no room for questioning, as was fitting: She was on her way home from her part-time job at an Arby’s when the announcement interrupted her radio station. She didn’t even remember the song she had been listening to, just that she was making a right-hand turn past a church. Its sign read some crap about forgiveness, and then the news broke into her scoffing with the same words heard around the country, “This is not a test.” She had turned around and driven straight to her mother’s. Her whole family had already cleared out. Didn’t even leave a note, she always finished with that bark-laugh of hers.

Hume was giving a review for the final exam, even though less than half of his students were showing up at this point. All at once, everyone’s phones had gone off with this crazy buzzing, grating beeping. It was the school’s mass security text. Hume didn’t have time to finish reading before students started screaming and leaping over seats to get out. He had done a full week of lectures on the dangers of global warming two months before, and as part of their participation grade had assigned each student with finding as many reports on the P-temp story as they could. They had watched it grow from a few scientists’ musings to its garnering national attention. So, his students all knew what the P-temp meant, and Hume couldn’t find a single reason to calm them.

            He had waited until they had all left, except for one, a female student who was shocked still to her seat. Here, Hume always skimped on his story even more, simply saying that he had helped her to the parking lot and went on his way. But he always stuttered, just a hint of a pause, as he told how he had to lift each of her fingers, one at a time, from clutching the corner of her desk, before his story went on. Same from that point as everyone else’s though-- he went home, said goodbye to his own little world, and made his way to the sewers. But, unlike everyone else,  Hume had a map, rations, and a plan. He had been ready for months. 

Next Chapter: Excerpt from Chapter 3