Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
10: The Best of Plans, Run Aground by Rabid...
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Sandy surveyed the area, taking in the trees swaying in the breeze and Charlotte’s high-rises silhouetted in the distance. “No one’s here. What time were you supposed to arrive?”
Monique glanced at her watch. Although most survivors quit tracking the date, zeroing out the date on their watches, most electronic and mechanical watches still worked. “We’re late. We said twelve noon and it’s after three. The shadows cast by the trees indicate it’s clearly afternoon. If anyone is showing up, they should already be here. Still, let’s find a place to wait. No one will approach until they observe us for a while, just so they know this isn’t a trap.”
“You sure picked an odd place to meet.” Sandy glanced down at the tombstones they passed. “A cemetery is kind of morbid. Given how many people died, it doesn’t send an encouraging message.”
“Since none of us were familiar with the area, we were scrambling for a decent locale.” Monique didn’t stop to search for anyone waiting. She knew they’d come in time, and looking impatient or upset would only scare them away. As always, it’s best to convey confidence and assurance. “However, we reached someone via ham radio who once lived here. He told us this was probably the optimal place. Any other site, say a stadium or park, wouldn’t allow people to observe us without exposing us to a potential trap. This is safer for us and anyone we’re meeting.” She turned and motioned at the nearby trees and the wind rippling across the overgrown grasses. “Instead, this provides a beautiful, peaceful, calm environment while reminding everyone what we’re fighting for.”
“If you say so.” Sandy didn’t sound convinced as she stopped to check out the marker on a small obelisk. “1978. The date seems so quaint. So few people died that year, as opposed to the billions who perished in the past couple months. The sheer fact they had the luxury of burying the dead in such a pastoral setting reveals how much the world has changed.”
“It isn’t so bad,” Monique said, sitting on a nearby marble bench. “David buried each of our group we lost.”
“Yeah, right. Tell me, did he bury them in a casket with a marker and carefully maintained grounds, or just dig a pit and dump them?”
“Well, they’re buried under his manicured lawn, and we held a memorial for each. David even erected a small wooden cross over his girlfriend and ex-wife’s graves. He didn’t bother putting their names on it, though.”
“Really? I’m impressed.” Sandy continued examining the nearby gravestones, shifting the overgrown weeds aside with her boot. “Maybe you really do live in the modern day Shangri-La. No one else would dare get within two hundred feet of someone who’d died of the plague.”
“No, we just understand the risks and how to minimize them. Eliminating the risk of infection is safer than leaving them out to contaminate the water supply, kill wildlife and poison the environment. Holding a memorial is a small price to pay for all those benefits. Though, to be honest, we buried everyone else in mass pits in the Fowler’s Crossing public park.”
Sandy was about to respond when Monique quietly alerted her new companion. “Don’t look, but we’re being watched.” Sandy spun around, glancing in all directions.
“I told you not to look!” Monique chided her. “We’re trying to encourage them to approach, not alert them we’re monitoring their every move.”
Sandy blushed, finally moving beside the more experienced black woman and sitting down, still glancing around. “Sorry, I’m not as good at this as you. Somehow, waiting for someone to come running up with a rifle or a hacking cough doesn’t relax me.”
“Don’t worry. If anything goes wrong, I’ll either warn you long before it occurs or I’ll deal with it before you have a chance to respond.”
“Now that makes me feel more confident. I’ve seen how you deal with trouble. You can clearly protect yourself.”
“Just sit still, watch the turning leaves, pick some wild flowers and enjoy the peaceful serenity. We can’t hurry anyone to trust us. This stage is beyond our control, so just wait for it to happen.”
Sandy tried to follow her advice, but couldn’t contain her curiosity for long. “Can you see them? What are they doing? How many of them are out there?”
“Yes, I can see him, though it’s only one man. He doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s being cautious—which is smart. So, what did you do before the disaster struck?” Monique asked, hoping to distract the flighty woman. She figured getting her to open up would make her more reflective.
“I wasn’t anything. I was a damn florist. My father was a successful businessman, my mother a corporate lawyer and my brother a bond trader. I helped my Aunt in her flower shop. When she wanted to retire, my father felt sorry for me and bought her out.”
“Still, that’s something, running your own business?” Monique subtly observing the man in the distance shift closer for a better look. She lowered her rifle into the tall grass where it wouldn’t be as obvious, but still accessible.
“Yeah, I had her client list and her reputation, so I kept it running. I also had so much stress I couldn’t relax and I never felt I was accomplishing anything of my own. My family kept expecting me to do great things, but I never rose beyond a petal pusher.”
Monique giggled at Sandy’s unintended pun. “Hey, don’t sell yourself short. Think of it this way, just how applicable would your parent’s skills be in our current world? There are no bonds to sell and no one needs a lawyer to protect their assets. Still, there’s a definite need for someone who can grow vegetables in controlled circumstances through the winter.”
Sandy considered that, but wasn’t quite done. “My father could lead men,” she insisted.
Monique shrugged, unimpressed. “There’s a vast difference between ordering people around and motivating strangers to place their lives in your hands. I’m not sure he would be very productive in the current situation. Without money, there’s no financial incentive to motivate people anymore. It’s now a question of survival. With plenty of free stuff lying around, no one has to work for anything.”
“Even so, I hardly did anything to survive. After the power went out, I had to close up the shop. Flowers don’t last long with no light, no climate control and no new deliveries. We heard about people getting sick, so my family insisted I lay low. I tried visiting my parents but my mother was gravely ill. My father wasn’t much better, so he told me never to come home again.”
“He was protecting you. You’d have done the same thing for them.”
“Maybe so, but it cuts you to the bone to be sent away during your family’s final hours. You don’t even get the closure of seeing them laid to rest. And I have no clue what happened to my bro—”
“Pardon me, but are you the lady from West Virginia?”
Sandy spun around. She’d been so busy relating her tale she’d completely forgotten what they were waiting for.
“Yeah, I’m Monique.” She didn’t bother standing, again letting the man approach. “I’m here to help you set up set up a treatment center for the plague, allowing you to build a community.”
Satisfied neither woman was dangerous, the man moved closer. “And you can honestly cure the plague?”
“Well, technically we don’t cure it. We provide a treatment which allows you to survive it.” Monique leaned back and regarded their newest addition. He seemed like he’d been around a while. He held a crinkled cigarette between his lips, had a couple days beard, a wool cap on his head and a dark hooded sweater. Just the kind of look you need to avoid detection. “Once you come through it, you’ll be immune to all varieties of the Great Death, but you’ll be a carrier. But as long as you know how to avoid exposing others, you’ll be fine.”
The man whistled. “Damn, I didn’t dare hope it was true. My name is Dennis. ‘Dour Dennis’ is what my friends used to call me.”
Sandy cocked her head. “Really? You seem pretty cheerful.”
“It’s English humor. Since I look cheerful, they call me ‘dour’.” Dennis flicked his ashes before taking another drag on his cigarette. “If I was fat, they’d call me ‘skinny’; if I was gentle, they’d call me ‘killer’.”
“You realize those will kill you?” Monique teased.
“Hey, if it’s a choice between this and the Death, I’ll take a slow demise, thank you very much.”
Sandy stood up, offering him her seat. “Actually, since no one’s willing to drink contaminated water, it’s safer to drink leftover caffeinated sodas instead of anything healthier. Everything we once believed about health has been turned on its head.”
“We stocked up on our tea supplies,” Monique suggested. “You collect rain water and brew it in glass jars you leave out during the day, all without electricity. We also filter the rainwater using rain barrels. You can use each bag several times to preserve the supply.”
“I’ll remember that,” Dennis said. “That way when I keel over dead from leukemia in another forty years, someone will have warm tea for my wake.” The women smiled, as it revealed how he got his nickname. He wasn’t dour, just his sense of humor.
“So do you know whether anyone else is coming?” Sandy asked. Monique groaned, rolling her eyes at the indelicate delivery.
“No, I’ve been watching the area all day waiting for you. I haven’t noticed any others. Wandering through town, I occasionally glimpse someone scurrying between buildings or in a window, but I’ve never spoken to anyone.” Instead of taking a seat on the bench beside Monique, he sat amongst the weeds, propping his knees with his arms. “There are at least a few people around, but they’re not volunteering. Either they haven’t heard your message, or they aren’t convinced you’re legit.”
Monique glanced up as if observing the unseen radio waves passing overhead. “We were afraid of this. This is the farthest we’ve traveled from our base. I guess the radio waves aren’t easy to pick up this far south.”
Dennis reflected a moment before continuing. “That’s true. I’ve been listening for a long time and I had a hard time piecing together your message. If someone only tuned in occasionally, they might assume your broadcasts were just random static.”
“Even so, the fact people aren’t volunteering isn’t surprising. We can bide our time while waiting for anyone else to show up and for you to make a decision. I need to check the local hospitals to recover medical equipment you can use in the future. While I’m busy, you can post fliers around town announcing what we’re doing. Once people hear about our success, they’ll start showing up. Fear is a powerful deterrent, but hope is ultimately stronger. It just takes longer.”
“You’re willing to venture into those death wards?” Dennis asked, looking doubtful.
Monique shrugged. “I’m immune. They’re certainly not pleasant. The air’s atrocious and they remind you of terrible times, but I’m the only one who can access them. If I don’t do it, you won’t have the supplies you need. But if you undergo the treatment, it’ll be up to you to recover more supplies. You’ll also need to clean out enough buildings for people to live and work in.”
“I don’t know; I’m not sure I’m willing to chance contracting the plague. Your broadcast said there’s still a good chance I’d not only die, but die horribly.”
“That’s correct.” Monique pushed her short hair behind her ear as she regarded him. “It’s a terrible disease, death is a very real possibility, but your odds are good. If you don’t volunteer, it’s only a matter of time until you’ll contract it anyway. You’d do better being treated than suffering on your own.”
“Yeah, I got that.” Dennis took a last drag on his spindly cigarette before tossing the stub into the knee-high grass. “But it doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the risks.”
Monique held two fingers aloft. “Ideally, it’s best if I treat two people. That way, if something goes wrong, there’s someone left to carry on. Since we only have two people here, you’re either in, or you’re out.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to consider it. I was hoping I could just help out, gather stuff and prepare things.”
“Do you need me to volunteer too?” Sandy asked.
Monique sighed. “Frankly, I’m a little worried about you. You’re still fairly ill-equipped to deal with life. It’s clear you’re looking for someone to shelter you. I wouldn’t mind training you to at least defend yourself and notice obvious signs of danger. But if you don’t want to settle here, it’s possible everyone here may ultimately die out.”
“Hey, don’t blame me for the failure of others.” Dennis swept his arm, indicating the city beyond the bounds of the cemetery. “If no one else is willing to volunteer, I’m not ready to surrender my life for those who don’t care enough to show up.”
“Look, think it through. This is deadly serious. You’re either both in, or it won’t work. If I only treat one and it doesn’t work, then no one in the region will trust the treatments in the future. What’s more, if you both aren’t convinced about the treatment, you won’t be able to build a local community based on it.” She signed and glanced around. “We can wait to see if anyone else shows up while I teach you how to avoid contracting the plagues. But if no one’s willing to bet on the future, then I might as well move on to Atlanta.”
“Hold on,” Dennis said, dropping his knees and leaning forwards. “I’m not saying no just yet. I just need time to consider it.”
“I’ll wait here to see who else shows up. Then I’ll spend tomorrow morning collecting and preparing supplies. We need to find a doctor’s office so we can control the environment and clean up after we’re done. We require cleaning supplies as well. After that, we need to begin the treatment. We’re on a tight schedule. We need to cover the entire country before winter sets in, or at least as much as we can possibly reach.”
Dennis took one last glance around, hoping to see another candidate. “I was hoping we’d have more volunteers so we could debate who we’d select.”
“I’d prefer a universal donor, but even if you’re type O, you could treat thirty percent of people.”
“You’re looking for type AB?”
“Ideally, but the chances anyone has that blood type are pretty remote. If you’re immune and can conduct the treatment, you can treat anyone. You just can’t produce plasma for other blood types.”
“OK, let’s figure out what we’ll need. That’ll give us time to consider what we want to do. Still, a community of only two people isn’t very productive.”
“Believe me, if you can treat plague victims, people will start showing up. No one wants to be alone when they contract the plague.”
“I don’t understand why you want to tag along; this isn’t quite a happy tourist site.” Monique dropped her gear as she surveyed her destination across the street. “This is hardly the safest place to hang out, and it’s certainly one of the more depressing.”
“Are you kidding?” Sandy asked, taking Monique’s backpack and placing it beside her own stuff. “I’d love to be able to go inside with you.”
“You’re nuts! I’m immune and I still dread it. There are dead bodies so old they’ve mummified. The air is thick with the choking stench of death. You have to rush everywhere otherwise the smell and lack of fresh air overwhelms you. What’s more, you’ve got to scrub yourself and everything you recover raw afterwards.”
“Still, it’s the safest place imaginable. Just think; no one dares enter the building. If I could, I’d set up an office on the main floor, push the dead into a corner room and seal it off. Then I’d sit there, secure that no one will ever threaten me.”
“No, you can bet they wouldn’t. But if you were needed, you’d be unreachable. It’s not very practical.”
“Practical? Hell! For the past couple months, all I’ve wanted was to be left alone. Anytime I fall asleep, I dreamed of being attacked. Even before the Great Death, I was unnerved by guy’s staring at me. There were sections of town I dreaded delivering to for fear someone would grab me. But if I lived inside a hospital like this, I’d never have to worry. Hell, I wouldn’t even fear leaving in the middle of the night, because everyone would assume I was contaminated.”
“I don’t know about you. We’re going to have to work on your self-confidence. You’re like a church mouse so terrified of the other mice she hides beside the church’s cat, never anticipating lunchtime approaching.”
“I didn’t say I’m ready to get sick and die, and I’m not about to get any closer. But the idea of the luxury it would afford is just ... liberating.”
“Well, once you undergo the treatment, you’ll enjoy that kind of freedom. Not only will no one dare touch you, but the whole community will protect you. Who would risk attacking you if you hold everyone’s life in your hands? If they or their friends got sick, if you hesitated for only a moment, they’d die. You’d live as a golden girl, but it comes at a price. You can’t touch anyone not immune without making them horrendously sick.”
“Hell, that’s a curse we all live with. No one dares touch anyone else for fear they might be infected and not realize it. Robert and Phillip were just waiting to prove I wasn’t infected before having their way with me. You arrived in the nick of time.”
“I thought you said Phillip was gay?” Monique teased.
“He was conditionally gay, but Robert wanted out. Robert had no problem raping me and would have shamed Phillip into doing the same. Once they started, nothing would prevent Phillip from attacking us both and Robert taking his frustrations out on me as well. You saved my life by being accosted.”
“Well, believe me, everything has a cost. For example, once you’re immune, people expect you to do things like this.” Monique pulled on her gloves, not bothering to motion at the Kings Mountain Hospital looming ominously behind them. This had once been a busy shopping area of Charlotte, but anyone surviving now gave it a wide birth.
“How did you ever get so self-assured? Surely you weren’t always this confident. Weren’t you scared?”
Monique sighed. “It’s like this. There comes a time as you’re lying there, ready to die, when you look death right in the face and decide you want to live. When you do, you decide nothing will hold you back. Once you make the decision, you’ll never let anyone or anything stand between you and living again. Things become very simple. One way means life, hesitation equals death.”
“But didn’t you—”
“Look, although you knew a lot of people who died, you’ve never faced death directly. But you’re right. When you’re infected, you want nothing more than for the pain to stop. Part of the treatment is someone constantly calling you back, telling you why you need to continue struggling. They remind you how the survival of the human race depends on you pulling through.”
“Part of the problem is it’s so easy to give up. Before, hospitals would simply abandon you. Their staffs were overwhelmed and afraid of contracting the disease themselves. When patients slipped into unconsciousness, they’d leave them alone until they died. They’d monitor them, but couldn’t guide them through the ordeal. Even if they survived, they were in a hospital with thousands of other plague victims. Before they could escape the hospital’s confines, they’d contract another plague.
“David, however, made a point of constantly reminding everyone they couldn’t surrender. He argued the only way we’d survive as a species was if the people with the wherewithal and genetic advantages managed to pull through. Without knowing who they were, no one could afford to give up. Ironically, David himself possessed those traits. If the hospitals hadn’t allowed people to give up and die, the Great Death might have been stopped a long time ago.
“David’s treatment includes reciting how everyone before you struggled. What they sacrificed so you could succeed and how we’ll only survive by continuing on. What’s more, he wouldn’t let anyone lapse into unconsciousness. He keeps calling you back, reminding you of what’s important. After a while, it seeps into your brain that survival is not only important, it’s essential. After you’ve been through that, you don’t let someone else’s hesitancy imperil you. You won’t hesitate to shoot someone attacking you, and you won’t stop if someone threatens your friends.”
“Oh,” was all that Sandy could think to say. She considered it for a moment. “This David character certainly has it all, doesn’t he?”
Monique sighed before giving Sandy a pleading look. “No, he’s just like anyone else. But he’s committed and willing to do whatever he needs to survive. You can do the same. You’re no longer just a flower peddler. There’s a definite need for horticulturists who can grow crops in small, carefully controlled environments. But ... if you undergo the procedure, you’ll be busy helping people as your primary occupation for some time.”
Sandy was silent considering that, so Monique pressed her.
“So you’ll be OK here by yourself?” Monique asked, just to be sure. “You won’t get bored, wander off and try something you shouldn’t?”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “Like what? There’s no one around and even if there was, they wouldn’t come this close to that tower of death. Besides, what kind of trouble can I get into? I’ve got nothing worth stealing, dozens of places to hide and I’m not planning to try anything. Go on, I’ll be safe. I brought a book to entertain me while you’re gone.”
“Good, that’s what I was hoping to hear. You’ve got to learn to be more independent. Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to go climb through a pile of dead bodies.” Monique snapped her glove against her skin to emphasize her point. She then began the short walk across East Trade Street, never bothering to glance back.
Sandy watched her walk away, envying her confidence and self-assurance. “Heck, this isn’t a bad place to waste a couple of hours,” she reflected glancing around. They’d picked the corner of East Trade and South Tryon which featured a nice park. There were a few trees, but it was mostly a dry fountain, a free standing bronze sculpture and some small bushes surrounding the glass-fronted building. Because of the abundance of concrete, bricks and asphalt, the area hadn’t yet become overgrown with weeds. They were trying their best, though. The trees lining both streets had fared well after all the pollution, noise and vibrations of the city fell silent. Those which hadn’t died out, at least, like the bare pines. Like most hospitals, Kings Mountain had stacked the dead outside when they became too numerous to deal with. But they were stacked in an inner courtyard on the far side of the building, so Sandy didn’t even have that to distract her.