Clinging to Hope as the World Falters
24: And Then There Were...

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

David couldn’t believe how calm and detached he was acting, even as his world was disintegrating around him. While they’d suffered multiple deaths recently, each had occurred in a very systematic way. First the guys had gotten sick; but they’d been exposed before they ever reached them. Then Bobby had fallen ill, but he’d been exposed because he hadn’t been aware of what he was doing. When the girls got sick, it wasn’t as big of a deal since they didn’t actually know whether the other two girls were exposed or not. Even as the deaths began to mount, there was still the idea that they could control the situation, simply shifting people from the main house to one of the two isolation/quarantine areas.

However, now everything was happening at once, with no reassuring structure or explanations for it. He couldn’t tell himself that there were specific reasons why one person fell ill while the rest remained OK, just as there wasn’t the assurance that he could keep everyone else safe simply by insisting on basic risk containment. Now it looked like everyone was exposed, those that were sick were dying much faster, and the rules of logic no longer applied to any of it.

At least during the infamous Black Plague in the 14th Century, which wiped out a full third of Europe, there were specific things which could keep people safe; like avoiding rats, which naturally favored the rich over the poor. While no one really knew these details at the time, at least there was a logic to it that could be applied. You avoided the dead and locations with high death rates, and you had a much better chance of surviving. But now it looked like there was no avoiding the reach of the Great Death.

But these thoughts occurred to David as he was struggling to take care of others. From getting Amy to somewhere they could take care of her, to checking on everyone, to finally taking care of the newly dead, he had to remain composed to ensure everyone was OK and that things got done the way they needed to. What’s more, he knew everyone looked up to him and expected him to remain in control. If he broke down or hesitated in indecision, the whole house of cards would collapse. He needed to be in control, even if he no longer felt they could control things anymore.

And it had worked. Since he’d restrained himself, focusing exclusively on what needed to be done, the others had followed suit. The girls were focused on helping Amy, Billy had shifted everyone’s things from one structure to another, and now he and Billy were moving Maggie and Sara’s bodies to their burial site.

Alas, he’d failed Sara on multiple counts. He’d let her mother go into the great unknown without an escort, ignored her failure to return, and then after he’d decided on a futile attempt to find her, he’d abandoned it. Now he’d been unable to protect her daughter, and once again hadn’t been there when she’d most needed him during her last moments.

And Maggie, even though she was officially someone else’s wife, had become as close to him as either Ellen or Linda. She was permanently tied to him, with a tie that even her death couldn’t break. She’d been there for him, always willing to help, and she’d waited patiently for him to notice that she was available, never once trying to force the issue like Flora had. She was the other rock amid the swirling vortex of chaos they’d been living through, the one the others could depend on to know what to do and how to fix things. But, when all was said and done, David wasn’t there for her final moments just as he hadn’t been there for Sara, Emily or even Bobby. No, his long list of personal failures to either protect or be there for those that depended on him was long and growing.

When they’d finally managed to cart the two corpses to the ... there was no graceful way to say it, to their burial pit, they simply left them there, merely covering the pit with a sheet to keep any animals away. But taking the time to look around as he headed back, David noted that he no longer heard the call of birds on the wing, and he observed dead carcasses lying around the edges of the property. The Great Death was sweeping up everything in its path, sparing nothing and no one.

They’d left the bodies simply because they didn’t have time to deal with a ceremony yet, and David hadn’t wanted to ‘bury them’—essentially just dumping earth on them—until they’d done that. Right then everyone was busy with other details, and they couldn’t take the short amount of time to reflect on what the recently departed had meant to their lives. Things had indeed gotten chaotic, and it didn’t look like they were going to get any easier in the near term, either.

When they returned, Ellen and Flora had breakfast ready, which they served lain out on the grass, with everyone separated by their current health status: David, Ellen, Flora to one side, Alice and Caitlyn sitting near Julie, who was sitting near Billy.

“You know, now that we’ve all been exposed, we really need to discuss things again,” Ellen suggested.

“Geez! Do we really have to?” Alice asked, groaning at the prospect. “Isn’t it bad enough that my friends have been dying and that Amy is now seriously ill, do we really have to discuss how each of us feels about it?”

“I just thought we needed to figure out where we stand, and whether it makes any sense to segregate everyone,” Ellen replied, shaken by Alice’s outburst. “If everyone has already been exposed, does it really make sense to penalize the sick?”

“Although it may seem cold, it’s still important to keep everyone separated,” David explained, taking her concerns seriously. “As Billy’s case demonstrates, just because you’ve been exposed to one illness doesn’t mean you’re safe from the others.”

“I agree, I was afraid to rejoin you guys for just that reason,” Billy said. “Although I hoped I was safe, I was afraid I was still contagious, and since it looks like most of those who have died have done so from different conditions, it doesn’t make any sense to ease the restrictions that have kept you safe for so long.”

“I agree,” Flora agreed. “We’re not talking social niceties here, we’re discussing whether we’ll each survive or not. So far, even with all the restrictions we’ve put into place, it hasn’t saved many of us. Now is no time to abandon the only thing remaining between us and certain death.”

“OK, I’ll concede, it was a dumb idea,” Ellen admitted.

“I think a better discussion is what the hell happened to Amy?” Flora asked, trying to refocus everyone’s attention.

“I’m pretty sure it was the wounds she received yesterday,” David suggested, after everyone paused to consider the question. “She hasn’t shown any of the obvious symptoms of the various diseases, and she clearly doesn’t have a simple infection since the antibiotics haven’t had any effect, so I’m guessing the viruses were introduced to her body directly through her multiple wounds. Her body hasn’t had a chance to fight it, producing the symptoms we’re all so familiar with. Instead it’s attacking her internal systems directly.”

“But how would she have been exposed?” Julie asked. “You’ve all been careful about what you do, who you talk to and what you touch.”

David simply stared at her, surprised she could ask such a thing. “When she was shot, she ended up flat on her back, exposing her to the elements. The ground she was lying on—exposed to hundreds of passing feet, dead skin, and people’s spit—had multiple entry points, completely bypassing the normal defense mechanisms in the skin, the respiratory system, the stomach and intestines. There’s any number of possible contagions she could have been exposed to. For all we know, she could actually have been exposed to ALL of them.”

The discussion might have continued on from there, but Amy began coughing, so Alice and Caitlyn quickly ran to check on her. Following more slowly, David and Ellen approached to see her suffering from violent convulsions.

“I don’t think she’s going to last long at this rate,” Flora suggested.

“No, her body is reacting violently to what it’s been exposed to. Frankly, I’m not sure if this is the result of the diseases we know, a new variation, or if it’s a version of the earlier anaphylaxis response.”

“It’s similar to anaphylaxis,” Ellen said, “but that’s not it. The symptoms aren’t the same. I’ve seen anaphylaxis before, and this isn’t it.”

“Well, help us hold her down or she’ll injure herself,” Alice pleaded. “As it is, she’s shaking so violently she’s going to wear herself out even faster.”

“Ow!” Flora cried, “She scratched me.”

“I’m not surprised, she’s thrashing quite a bit,” David commented.

“Well get off your ass and help us hold her down,” Flora insisted.

They worked together trying to restrain her, going as far as tying her down with blankets, much like you’d swaddle a baby. They were in the process of wrapping her up when she started spitting up blood, actually coughing it up on Flora, covering much of her side. It took a while, but they finally got her restrained, at which point Flora went in to wash up and change.

The restraints helped, but it was clear she wasn’t going to last long at this rate. What’s more, their normal approach of keeping people hydrated so they could maintain their strength wasn’t working as Amy was unable to even sip a small amount of liquid.

Amy looked up, pleadingly at David, as if she was asking him to somehow help her, but he couldn’t think of any way of easing her suffering. He wasn’t about to do it by helping her die, as he had no way of knowing who may ultimately survive these illnesses, the new Great Death, and trying to ‘put her down’ could very well threaten everyone if he chose to ease the wrong person’s pain. Besides, he didn’t know if he’d be able to do such a thing anyway. So instead they all sat there, alternately holding her, calmly talking to her, assuring her that everything was going to be OK, even though no one actually believed it. Flora returned, and people kept moving in and out, bringing drinks and additional supplies, but these efforts were having little effect.

Amy eventually died about an hour later. She stopped shaking quite so violently, but her eyes grew glassy and her body continued to shake with gentler but more consistent tremors. Finally she simply stopped responding, and Alice noted she stopped breathing a while afterwards. No one could bring themselves to try to revive her. She’d found her relief, a peace that was now staring each of them in the face, breathing down their necks as they considered what lay ahead of them.

“Anyway, Dad, I’m glad you said those things about Sara,” Alice said, recounting his final eulogy as she dried the next dish, “but what you said about Amy was just...”

“Was that the front door?” David asked, turning away from his discussion with his daughter, glancing back toward the front of the house.

“Maybe, after all, Caitlyn just took Julie some food,” Ellen reminded him.

Billy, now that he’d gotten sick again, had taken a turn for the worse, and Julie had agreed to sit with him while the others ate. After they’d finished, Caitlyn had offered to take Julie’s portion out to her.

“Yeah, but she just left. I can’t imagine her coming back that soon. Especially since she took water for them both, and had the trash to dispose of.”

“I guess you can ask her in another second.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still waiting. It isn’t that far from the front door to the kitchen,” David replied.

They were washing up, finishing off the dishes and putting them away, so they weren’t in line to see the front room, and couldn’t tell who was coming and going.

“Yeah, that is funny. Alice, maybe you’d better go take a...”

“There it is again,” David pointed out.

“Maybe it’s Flora?” Ellen suggested.

“Flora, is that you?” David called out. After dinner, she’d decided to see if she could rouse anyone on the short wave radios.

“Caitlyn probably just forgot something,” Alice suggested, handing her father another plate to put away.

“Hey, it’s not like she’s going to the theater,” David argued. “She doesn’t need to remember her tickers, her makeup, her jewelry and her cell phone. She was just heading outside.”

“Relax, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Ellen said, sliding the cutting board back under the sink.

David figured they were probably right. He’d given up trying to figure out how women’s minds worked a long time ago. As far as he was concerned, it was a simple trip. Take stuff out, check on everyone’s condition, try to get them to drink something, pick up the contaminated refuse, toss it in the pit to be burned later, and boom, you were done. But he figured she had her own reasons, so he wouldn’t worry about it. Who knows what kids are thinking anyway?

“Yeah, what’s up?” Flora asked, entering the kitchen from the other direction.

“We heard someone coming in the front door. We figured it was Caitlyn, since she just took some food out for Sara, but it’s too soon for her to have come back,” David explained.

“Nope, I’ve been in the radio room. There’s no one online, by the way. Just a lot of dead air space.

They continued to talk as they finished up, wondering what the lack of radio contact implied, and as David was wiping his hands, Ellen handed him two empty cocktail glasses.

“For me, I could really use it after today.”

“Sure thing, sweetie. I could use one myself.”

“Here’s another one for me,” Flora added, looking like she’d had a tough day as well.

“Hey, how about me?” Alice asked. “After all I’ve been through I think I deserve one as well.”

“Do you really think you’d—” David said before the unmistakable sound of a gunshot rang out from outside. Because the sound was so dim, they froze and listened if there was anything else, but when there weren’t any more shots, David jumped into action.

“Alice, I’m going to check outside. It was probably nothing, but grab your gun in case it wasn’t. Ellen, watch the door for me.”

Moving in different directions, when David and Ellen reached the front door, they found it partially open. Stepping outside, David glanced back and forth, unable to see anything out of the ordinary, and unable to determine just where the shot had come from.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Since the door was opened it must have been Caitlyn. Let’s check the trailer and see if she’s there,” David suggested.

He set off, and Ellen waited by the door until she saw Alice looking out the garage door, then set out after him.

Reaching the trailer, he walked straight in. Strangely, there was no light on, with only a dim glow to see his way around. David could hear Billy moaning, and he thought it odd that Caitlyn and Julie would just ignore him while he was in such pain. He had to fumble around a bit, but he found the light and switched it on. When he did, Ellen gasped. Glancing back at her, she simply pointed behind him, so he turned and saw what looked like Julie curled up on the other bed.

“Julie? What’s going on?” he asked, receiving no reply. Feeling anxious, he slowly approached her, touching her shoulder. When she didn’t respond, he dug out a spare set of gloves and checked her.

“What’s wrong with her?” Ellen asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t hear any breathing. Damn, she doesn’t seem to have a pulse either.”

“Did she have the Death and we just didn’t know it?”

“No, I don’t think so. She didn’t have any symptoms.”

“Neither did Adrian or Amy,” Ellen reminded him.

“True, but she doesn’t look like she had a fever. There’s a little sweat on her brow, but not enough, and her shirt is dry. If she was feverish, both would be damp.”

“What’s happening?” Alice asked, entering the trailer wondering what was keeping them. “Flora’s guarding the house, I figured if there’s trouble you’d need some support out here,” she explained when Ellen glanced questioningly at her. None of them liked the ideas of strange gunshots after the troubles they’d experienced the past several days.

“It’s Julie,” David explained. “She died, and we have no idea why.”

“Well where’s Caitlyn? I thought she came out here to check on them?”

“I don’t kn—”

“She ... she ... she got tired,” Billy struggled to answer, even though he was having a hard time focusing through the pain he was suffering. David figured it must have been important to him to make the effort he was to tell them what had happened. “She ... she turned off ... li ... light, and lay ... down.”

“If she was tired, why didn’t she just come inside and get one of us to relieve her?” Alice asked.

“I don’t think she was tired. I don’t know what killed her, but it was either a new disease, or something else got her. Maybe she was sicker than she thought, or maybe something else happened, like possibly a heart attack. Women don’t always get the telltale signs that men do; often thinking they’re just tired.”

“Right, a girl that young has a heart attack?” Alice scoffed.

“Hey, I don’t know, OK,” David responded. “All I know is that she’s dead, and we don’t know why. What’s more, Caitlyn is ... hold on,” he said, looking around. “Let me check something, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

He managed to find one of the flashlights they kept there when the boys were healthier, and turning it on, led the others outside and into the darkness.

They thought he was heading to the other outbuilding to check for Caitlyn, but instead he walked past it. Not wanting to miss anything, Alice checked it briefly. After all, that was where Julie had stayed, and Caitlyn might have wanted to get something to cover her with. But seeing no trace of her, she hurried after her father after rejoining Ellen.

David continued, hardly slowing for the others to catch up. He walked around the side of the house and kept going. Soon, they all saw the clear sign of the dirt mound the marked the location of their ‘memorial’ gravesite. Since David was ahead of them, he began flashing the light around as if searching for something. When Ellen and Alice caught up, he’d stopped to focus on something.

Looking over his shoulder, they both saw Caitlyn’s body; still wearing the outfit she’d worn to dinner, laid out on her back inside the pit, just beside where they’d buried the others earlier in the day. Except, the front of her outfit was covered with blood, and her head was thrown back at an awkward angle.

“Fuck!” David swore.

“I don’t understand, what’s going on?” Ellen asked, unable to wrap her mind around what she was seeing.

“Caitlyn killed herself,” Alice explained. “The stupid cunt took the coward’s way out. She must have found Julie’s body, figured out she was gone, and figured she’d had enough.”

Despite her concern for her friend, Alice viewed this as a personal betrayal, doing this without even a word of warning to the others that she was having troubles coping. Not even giving them a chance to talk her out of it.

“Right, we must have heard her when she reentered the house to get one of the guns we stored in the basement,” David continued. “Then she came out here, where she knew she’d present the least mess for us to clean up, and she shot herself, swallowing her pistol.”

“Why on earth would she do such a thing?” Ellen asked, clearly shocked by the prospect.

“I’m betting she discovered she was infected, and did like Mom did,” Alice offered.

“You don’t know that’s what your mom was thinking,” Ellen cautioned her.

“Yeah, right. Why else would she do this?” Alice responded, not differentiating who she was referring to.

“I wouldn’t be so harsh on her. Not everyone can tough it out,” David replied. “We each have our own breaking points. She probably saw that Julie was gone, figured it was only a matter of time, and decided she’d had enough of watching everyone else suffering and dying, especially considering what everyone else went through near the end.”

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