The sound of distant guns had quieted for now, replaced by the nearer sound of coming thunder. While Isabella carried the steaming bucket of diarrhea and vomit through the woods, she prayed repeatedly: Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for this opportunity to help someone I care about. Please help me to find your blessings in every disgusting thing I have to do. Amen. She was tired. She was cold and damp from last night’s rain. She felt worse every time she sent up the prayer.
She passed a sign, barely legible in the twilight of the woods: 14 mi. to Baker’s Beach. As she always did when she was on the verge of crying, she thought back to happier times, especially last summer. She remembered when she and Timothy and some of her girlfriends, friends who were dead now, had driven to the beach for that midnight picnic, just before the war started. Isabella had said goodbye to her father dressed in a stylishly modest wet suit; the minute she arrived at the beach she had changed into the skimpiest string bikini she had managed to find at the mall. Her friends had laughed and gotten drunk and done things Isabella couldn’t remember now. Click-click: Timothy commemorated the bikini with his new Polaroid camera, a gift from Carmella.
Click-click. The all too familiar sound of a gun pointed right at her, bringing her back from that happy time. “Stop! Who’s there?” came the gruff voice of one of the guards, the light mounted onto the gun aimed right for her eyes.
Isabella raised a hand to block the light, easing her voice into a confidence she didn’t feel. “It’s Isabella! I’m just making a run to the pit!”
The guard lowered the gun. “Carry on. Be careful and come back right when you are finished. It looks like rain again tonight.” Usually the warning was “soldiers have been sighted in the woods tonight.” The rain had been a nice change from the norm. Until everyone had to sleep in wet clothes, because the laundry hadn’t been brought in on time.
Isabella trudged on, fighting desperately to keep from spilling the contents of the bucket on her legs. To the west, against the blanched light of dusk, she could make out another figure hauling a basket full of laundry to the river. The power had been out for two months. Isabella didn’t know what they would do when winter came.
Frankly, she didn’t know anything anymore.
She had managed to keep from getting the disease up until that point. But it was little comfort to her, since she had to take care of the sick now. It had been nine long months. It was all she could do to stay on her feet some days, so afflicted was she with anger and horror and fatigue. The school had been the last place to lose power, so it had gradually become the hospital and the town hall and daycare and the base for the military guards who kept them quarantined from the outside world. This quarantine, they claimed, was a safety bubble against enemy forces. The students and the few adults left waited and waited to be released to travel to a safer area of the world. But the liberation never came. And now the world was dark, and everyone was waiting to die from the phantom virus.
It dried you up like a prune, from the inside out. It was like the opposite of pneumonia – instead of lungs drowning in fluid, they drowned in dryness. You sweated and vomited and had diarrhea until your skin and organs and bones were dried up, and then you crumbled away. And nobody knew what caused it. The virus had completely evaded discovery, and wreaked silent, irreparable damage on everyone it touched.
As she did a dozen times a day, Isabella touched her tongue to her lips, checking their moisture. They said your tongue was the first thing to go, then your throat. The hospital/school was filled with the silent screams of the dying.
As Isabella crested the hill, she realized she was crying. Tears were always a relief, but now they just made her more tired. She wanted to dump the bucket and get to sleep. Her gloves were slipping on the handle, but she forced herself to walk to the edge of the trees before setting it down to have a rest. Only a few more minutes until she reached the latrine.
Isabella had been in third period calculus when the final announcement had come over the intercom: there had been a bio-bomb set off close range. Everybody was to stay in the school. In the city, beyond the little valley that contained only the school and its outbuildings, police were clearing the streets, getting everyone inside. Kids at school and parents at work desperately called each other, not knowing that they would never see each other again, and in five months’ time, never speak to each other again. The second lockdown was never lifted, and after five weeks of living inside of the school, Greece declared martial law.
Two months later, the Reformists invaded.
By that time, Isabella’s father was dead, and her mother was very sick, unable to speak on the phone or even type email messages. Not that Isabella would have had time to chat. Suddenly she was busy taking care of her classmates and teachers and other staff at the school. She was busy wiping her dying friends’ butts and sweaty faces. She was busy filling mass graves with the kindergarten or fifth grade or freshman class. There were a little more than a hundred and fifty students left at the school, and maybe ten adults. She was busy trying to keep above the depths of wild hysteria.
Every day she cursed her school, and all schools all around the world. She couldn’t help feeling that this was their fault. Not the disease, but the gross unpreparedness of everyone who was suddenly fighting to save the lives of people they cared about. She remembered earlier years of whining to her friends about how pointless social studies was, or chemistry or gym class, because she would never need any of it to be a stewardess. She never imagined how useless school would really turn out to be. Before the bio-bomb, a person didn’t even have to read the Bible to see that the world was reaching a crisis point, but did anybody try to prepare her for it? No. She learned to factor factorials and write essays that popped, and many other things that turned out to be perfectly worthless. Teachers tried to teach her to be successful in post-secondary school, in her high-end job, in her future that she would never have now.
Even if the world hadn’t come to an end, what was the point of learning to think like everyone else? To lead a cyclical life of either work or school, until death?
Isabella tried to hide it, but she was scared. In these circumstances, many people she knew had shown themselves to be heroes, and had sacrificed their health and sanity to help their classmates or teachers. Resourcefulness, courage, compassion, sure, that can be dragged from the inner soul in difficult times. But knowledge? Skill? Where did one gain the experience to save someone’s life, if not at school? Things like first aid and outdoor education were taken maybe once or twice in someone’s lifetime, but certainly not enough to make a lasting, useful impact. Isabella and the others had learned by trial and error, with ever-dwindling help from the outside world. They had to learn from their failures by watching their friends die.
She sniffed, but not because of tears. She reached the revoltingly smelly latrine long before she should have.
The waste site had swollen with the endless rain of the day before. It was barely contained by a shallow basin in the ground, ready to overflow, down toward the valley at any moment. Thunder rumbled its evil laugh somewhere far away, sending chills down Isabella’s spine. The latrine was the only way of keeping the illness from spreading. Not only would its spillover be totally gross to have to walk through – it could end up re-infecting everyone, just when the death rate had dropped below one person per week.
Isabella turned and ran back down the hill, glad to abandon the bucket. She was out of breath by the time she crashed through the fallen metal fence surrounding the school.
She found her friends in the cafeteria, which had once been a mass storehouse for the supplies that had been shipped to them from nations and states that were still on their feet. Once the stacks of boxes had reached to the ceiling, and now the only things left were the cans and the utensils, which had found surprising uses in the past few weeks. After several fights, some nearly to the death, the leftover supplies was now kept in the principal’s office, under lock and key and strict military surveillance. The principal was dead now, buried beneath the swing set, but Isabella was sure old Mrs. Matthews would have been proud of the crackdown.
Now the cafeteria was a meeting place for those who weren’t sick. Isabella banged through the north door. Seventeen of her friends, who included Sophia, Olivia, Mason, Ava, and William were sharing scraps of bread and a jug of old water between them. Isabella collapsed among them as thunder boomed outside.
“Isabella!” exclaimed Noah, reaching for her.
“The…ditch…” she gasped, struggling to her feet. She was so tired. But she took a deep breath and pulled on her authority like an oversized jacket. “We’ve got to get everyone out of here,” she announced in a low voice, pulling her arm free of Noah’s grasp. “The pit is going to overflow as soon as the rain starts to fall. All that…stuff, it’s all going to flood the valley.” She motioned for the murmurs of horror to be silenced. “Everyone is going to start getting sick again.”
“We’ve got to go tell someone,” Constance whispered. They couldn’t let anybody in here know yet. Everyone was on edge, prone to sudden hysteria and panic. Sometimes, literally over spilled milk. There was only half a jug left, keeping cool/mummifying in the cellar. Whoever drank the last of it would probably be executed on sight. Casually, Isabella strolled out of the cafeteria, smiling widely at her friends before slipping back into the hall. As she quietly closed the door behind her, someone grabbed her wrist.
“It won’t matter, anyway,” a voice hissed from a shadowed face. Isabella jerked, banging her elbow on the door.
“Harvey!” Isabella gasped. He emerged slightly from the darkness. “I know things seem hopeless right now, but we’ve still got to do what we can.” She smiled tightly and tried to walk passed him, but he stuck his foot out, nearly tripping her.
“No,” he insisted. “I mean, all of this. This paranoia, over trying not to ‘catch’ the phantom virus. None of it matters. The virus…it doesn’t exist.”
Isabella was quite tired; all she could do was blink at him. “Okay, Harvey, you’ve got thirty seconds. The rain is going to start any minute, and we’ve got to get everything and everyone to the top floor without causing any panic.”
He made an exasperated sound. “You’re not listening. I mean, there’s no virus. Okay, let me start from the beginning. The bio-bomb – well, it wasn’t a bio-bomb. It was a chemical-bomb. It released a mutagen.”
“What are you talking about?” Isabella asked. Harvey grabbed her wrist and drew her down so they were sitting against the lockers.
“I studied the patterns of death,” he went on. What a hobby. “Did you ever notice how any females who got sick could either live or die? But if any guys got sick, they died within four weeks? And that if a mother died, all of her sons died too? But if a father died, and the mother was never sick, all of her sons were fine too. Her daughters might get sick, but they never died.”
“Well, it happens. Every single time. There’s not a case of a male getting sick and not dying, but as you know, some of the females got better.”
“So you’re jealous because you think that if you get sick, you’re done for?” she started to stand up, but he continued as though she hadn’t said anything.
“So that was my first clue. And then, the WHO said it themselves. They could never find the cause of the illness. They called it a phantom virus. The symptoms are similar to cholera, but they can’t find cholera or any other virus or unknown organism. Oh, they’ve come up with all sorts of theories and explanations, like spontaneous combustion. But did they consider the most radical theory of all? That maybe there was never a bacteria or virus to begin with?”
“I…guess not?” His scientific jargon was lost on her. She tried to look as though she were following every word, though. The more she humoured him, the faster this conversation would be over.
“Well, like I said, they were looking for answers in the exact wrong place. Viruses have nothing to do with anything. And that’s why the guys who created this bomb were such geniuses. My theory is that the bomb almost definitely contained a mutagen. It attacks an incompletely dominant, recessive gene on the X chromosome.” He looked at her expectantly, as though he had just revealed the secret to getting ships inside of glass bottles. “I think that the affected gene coded for a protein that keeps the electrolyte balance, but the mutation causes it to go wildly out of control, hence the cholera symptoms. So, you can’t get infected with this thing. I’m sure that sewage that’s about to spill over could infect us with all sorts of stuff, but not this so-called phantom virus.”
She was still trying to wrap her mind around the spontaneous combustion of bacteria.
“Aficionado,” she muttered in defeat.
“What? A fish should what?”
She rolled her eyes. “Aficionado. It’s Latin for nerd alert.” He looked pleased. “Okay, so, how do you know all of this?” she asked him.
“I just figured it out last night. My father did experiments on mice, changing their genes and stuff. He even got some of them to glow! But he did discover a chemical that had a similar, seemingly-bacterial effect.”
That didn’t really answer the question, but she moved on. Whatever he was talking about, it seemed serious, and somebody needed to take charge. “So what do we do?”
“Well, first and foremost we’ve got to tell the world that nobody who’s got the phantom virus is contagious. We’ve got to tell them that it’s safe for us to get out of here and get some real help!” He bounced to his feet, starting toward the principal’s office. Bones creaking, Isabella got up to follow.
“Hold up, Harvey, I don’t think you know what you’re doing. Nobody here is going to listen to us. We were going to have enough trouble warning the guards about the overflow. But telling them that the government and WHO are wrong and that this thing that everyone is so afraid of doesn’t exist? Do you know what they will say? What they might do to us? Harvey!” She snatched the hood of his sweater, clothes-lining him to a halt. “Stop and think for a minute. Wait, you think way too much. Let me tell you something.”
He crossed his arms, raising his eyebrow at the sound of thunder that seemed to shake the school. They were running out of time.
She drew him back into the abandoned hallway, smiling reassuringly at a third-grader who passed by. “Alright, Einstein, here’s what we’re going to do.”
Even with the head start they got, the rain was in full swing by the time Isabella convinced the office guards to even let her in to see the commander. While she convinced him to start moving stuff from up from the ground floor, Harvey crashed the mope-fest in the cafeteria to talk to Isabella’s friends, and explain her plan.
“What do you mean you need to go make sure the latrine is actually overflowing? What do you think this is?” Isabella cried, resisting the urge to stomp her foot.
Though she was taller than the commander, he managed to look down his nose at her. “We know you kids. We will never forget your last prank.” Isabella fought to keep the stern expression on her face as she remembered the Commander’s fancy hat covered in rotten fish.
“This is serious,” she insisted, hoping Harvey was getting enough time to explain his boring science in the cafeteria.
Finally, after what felt like an hour, Isabella was dismissed with the assurance that someone would go and look at the latrine as soon as possible. From seventeen years of whining to adults about her problems, Isabella knew that “as soon as possible” could just as well mean “when we feel like it”. She hadn’t expected that much resistance. As she hurried back down to the main floor, she quickly drew up a Plan B. This would help with the Harvey’s part of Plan A anyway.
“Okay guys, this isn’t going to work,” she announced when she returned to the cafeteria. “The commander’s got his head up his butt, so we’re going to have to deal with this ourselves.” The rain on the roof masked her voice from anyone who wasn’t in their little corner.
Harvey snorted, rising from his place in the center of Isabella’s group of friends. “You think you’ve got problems? These guys won’t even listen to me about the phantom virus.”
“Hey, we think you’ve got a good point,” William replied. “But Sophia and I just don’t feel that running away into the wild is going to fix anything.”
She hadn’t initially thought so either. She had to be honest, she wasn’t running away with Harvey because she thought it would help anything. She just really wanted to get out of here. There were too many memories, and too many ghosts. Timothy, Andrew, her sister. Her previous, naïve self.
Isabella made a snap decision. “Alright, anybody who doesn’t want to come, stay here. We’ve got big problems with the latrine, and someone is going to have to – ” she gagged suddenly as a terrible smell hit her. There were moaning and choking sounds all over the cafeteria. “Well, what do you know!” She motioned them all to follow as she ran through the throngs of people tripping through the cafeteria, making a beeline for the door.
She didn’t bother with formalities. Everyone was used to whispering to avoid waking the sleeping casualties, so they heard her quite easily. “Hey, everybody, the latrine has just overflowed because of all this rain!” Isabella hollered when she made it to the top of the stage. “We need to start moving stuff and people upstairs, and getting stuff inside!” Rechargeable equipment like heaters and water purifiers were set outside in the sun during the day. A lot of it was just lying on the grass. She turned to her friends once she saw that everyone had gotten the message. This was nothing new really, just another daily catastrophe.
“Okay, William, Sophia, anybody else who doesn’t want to come with me, try to get everybody working together so things don’t get too chaotic.” She knew how futile the words were. As a matter of fact, she was counting on things getting chaotic. Not because of panic, but because in situations like these, everyone wanted to be a leader and a hero. The night was ripe for escape.
She would be glad to leave, glad to leave behind the despair of watching people die. Finally, she could do something about it.
Most of the group stayed behind. “Will we see you again, Isabella?” they asked. She didn’t know what to say. She was used to delivering bad news, she was used to taking the sugar coating off her words for the sake of efficiency. But for once, just once, she wanted to be hopeful.
“Of course you will,” she replied, hugging them all. “We’re just going to get Harvey’s plane and go to Geneva, and tell them our theory, and once they get the word out that nobody is contagious, you and everyone else will be free.” It sounded ridiculous even as she said it, but to their credit, her friends pretended to accept her words. “Goodbye, everyone. And…thanks.”
After packing some supplies, Isabella, Harvey, Ava, Constance, William, Mason, Chloe, Olivia, Noah, and Cassandra slipped into the rainy night. The smell was nearly unbearable, but the rain helped to shield them from the guards and the students who frantically moved things inside. Constance stopped as she noticed her little brother struggling to pick up a portable ventilator. After a moment, three more boys came to help.
“Come on, guys,” Isabella said softly. “It’s a long walk to Harvey’s.”
“So what’s our plan, anyway?” Mason asked once they got to the relative shelter of the thick trees. “Just storm the WHO building and demand to have our message broadcast?”
Harvey shook his head. “My cousin works there. He can help us run some tests, and get some real evidence that this thing is genetic, not viral.”
“And then what?” wondered Chloe, who, unlike most of the others, understood perfectly what Harvey babbled about. “We can’t cure genes.”
Harvey smiled. “No, but once they know what is causing the sickness, they can treat it. It’s caused by electrolyte imbalance, which is controlled by the defective transport proteins, or maybe hormones. Either way, there’s a solution. Once we find it, I think we can end this war.”
That was quite a leap in reasoning. “How do you figure that?” asked Chloe.
“Because, everyone all over the world is dying from this thing. If we talk to the right people, this cure could be the ultimate peace bribe. If we tell the countries – and not just the leaders, all the citizens – that if they call a cease fire, we will give them the cure, they will have to listen to us. And if not, I’m sure most of the people will riot and then they will have to listen to their people. Either way, this fighting stops, and the doctors can finally start getting their story straight and stop clawing at the air.”
Everyone was silent for a while. Then, Chloe spoke up. “They sure don’t teach us this in school.” She smiled too, and soon everyone was laughing, albeit quietly and nervously. This was the first time they had all gone out as a group without hauling buckets or hampers of something smelly. Or wheelbarrows full of bodies. Even the stench from the school was getting farther away, the higher they climbed out of the valley. It was almost like they were going on a camping trip.
And then ugh, the smell was back. Making faces and rude comments, everyone held their noses as they walked. It was still kind of funny, though. Especially since they would be out of the stink zone, soon, and all of this would be nothing but a memory.
It was funny until Mason suddenly caught Isabella’s arm and yanked her backward, nearly snapping her wrist. “Mason, what – ”
Then she saw it. The stink had grown worse. It was coming off a rotting corpse, its empty eye-sockets eerily shadowed in the glow of the flashlight. The little girl couldn’t have been more than three, and she had been dumped recently. Someone hadn’t wanted this little one to be an anonymous body in a mass grave. Isabella had done the same thing with her sister, leaving her where someone could see the misery they were in.
Isabella didn’t realize she was screaming until Olivia clapped a hand over her mouth. “Shhhh, I think I heard someone in the – ”
Click-click. A harsher, sharper light pierced the darkness to stab their eyes. “Stop! Who’s there?” Isabella froze, weighing her options as everyone stood paralyzed around her. Mason’s grip instinctively tightened around her. Suddenly, she screamed, throwing his arm away.
“Thank God, somebody finally came to help me!” she sobbed, stumbling toward the light. When she was close enough, she could see that the guard was young, his face twisted in surprise. She fell into his arms, sobbing for all she was worth. “N-n-no one even noticed them dragging me away! Everyone was too busy saving the stupid equipment!”
“Now, now,” said the guard, wrapping an arm around her. “Nobody move!” he barked at the others, who were still frozen in shock. He didn’t notice Isabella reaching into her jacket pocket as she continued to weep and cling and praise the Lord. When he took a step toward the paralyzed group of teenagers, Isabella struck. The glass bottle of ointment connected with his temple. He crumpled to the ground, surrounded by broken, dripping glass.
Isabella stood over him, horrified. She hadn’t expected the glass to break. But there was a large piece wedged in the side of his head, blood running around the protrusion in rivulets.
Everyone rushed around them. “He’s not breathing,” Cassandra concluded. “His pulse is getting weaker.”
“We’ve got to help him!” Isabella cried, falling beside him and desperately grabbing for his hand.
Cassandra reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled out a wire. Faintly, they could make out a crackling voice: “Private? Private what’s going on? Have you subdued the runaways?”
“They’re going to come for him soon,” Chloe said frantically. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“No!” Isabella shrieked. “Doesn’t anybody remember their first aid training? We’ve got to help him! Somebody, help him!”
Harvey hauled her to her feet. “Isabella, we can’t get caught.”
She made a strangled sound, sobbing for real now. the guard had only been trying to help her. “I killed him, I killed him.”
“Private, we have your location and we’re sending reinforcements.”
“Isabella, listen to me,” Harvey insisted. “We’re on a mission. Things are going to get in our way – ”
“He’s a person trying to protect us! He’s not a thing!”
“ – and we have to learn to keep going. Isabella. We have a chance to save billions of people, not just from the sickness, but from each other. We have a chance to save the world. Like our friend here was trying to do.” He motioned vaguely toward the fallen soldier. “No one will believe us on our own. We have to get to Geneva for this to work. If we get caught, this is all over, for everyone. We’ve been learning how to keep going even when things get hard. Heck, I think that’s the first useful thing we’ve learned at that school.”
Isabella continued to cry, but she nodded slightly. Olivia wrapped her in a hug.
“Isabella,” Harvey said more gently. “I’ve watched you, over the months. You’re a leader. You call the tough shots, when you know there’s no point working on a patient who can’t be helped, or when resources could be better used to save someone else. What do we do now?”
Isabella scrubbed her eyes. She took a few deep breaths, but that only filled her lungs with the stench from the decaying toddler. Without saying a word, she took the fallen soldier’s gun, flashlight, and ration kit. She also took his tracker, to throw it into the river later. She rearranged him into what she hoped was a more comfortable position. His eyes, she left open, so he could see the stars when the rainclouds cleared.
Silently, she led everyone deeper into the woods just as the first searchlights appeared in the distance. Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for this opportunity to help people I care about. Please help me to find your blessings in every disgusting thing I have to do. Amen. She was tired. She was cold and damp from this fresh round of rain. She still felt a little worse every time she sent up the prayer.