OUTSIDE LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
It started with a cough.
Charlie’s mom got it first; fever, chills, nothing to worry about, she said, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, a bottle of Dayquil and a box of tissues on the coffee table. Just don’t let your father get near me; you know how it goes, I get a cold and he’ll get pneumonia. Do you have your inhaler, hon?
When her dad came down with it, they said the same thing. We’ll be fine, sweetie, and could you run to the store and grab some ibuprofen?
She had. She’d walked to the store two blocks down and picked up the ibuprofen, plus cough drops, orange juice, and saltines, and splurged on a comic book with the leftover change.
By the second day, the news started to trickle in, but Charlie didn’t notice. She read about something on the internet, but it was vague and happening on the East coast, Boston, which might as well have been a world away from their home in Nevada. They were safe, she thought; protected by the invisible borders of a dozen states and several thousand miles.
Even when it got bad, when the district canceled school (“just being cautious,” the superintendent assured them, pausing twice to clear his throat during the prerecorded message), when her father turned the TV on and left it on, playing in the background like an endless funeral dirge, they said it was nothing. Her parents smiled through tired, swollen eyes, and reassured her everything would be OK. Their mouths spoke what their eyes couldn’t convey.
Her father turned in for the night, well before dinner. Her mother did the same. Charlie stayed up until her usual bedtime at ten, shutting off the lights one by and one and checking the locks on the doors; something that made her feel notably older than her fifteen years.
By the sixth day, they were gone, but Charlie didn’t know it. She didn’t want to know it. They were just sleeping it off.
They’d been sleeping it off for three days.
Time began to lose meaning. She’d catch herself staring at her fingers as though she’d never seen them before, examining her cuticles as if they were a new and interesting species of bug. She picked at the corners until they bled, an anxious habit that began in grade school and had stopped a few years ago. How odd, she thought, that it would come back.
She remained perplexed and fascinated and faintly disgusted at the way the flesh curled around the hard bed of the nail, the bright drop of ruby blood, the way it bled into the divots and valleys of her skin, alighting her knuckles like roses in slow bloom.
She could spend hours sitting perfectly still in the same spot, mind blank, then come to as though no time had passed and wonder why her back felt sore and stiff, why her muscles ached from atrophy.
When her own throat started to itch, to tickle, she fell asleep clutching her aspirator to her chest, too terrified to make a sound. If she coughed, if she so much as cried, she would die, so she wouldn’t cough, not a bit, not even when the asthma attack threatened to consume her. She sucked on her inhaler and counted to ten over and over, until the spasms in her throat and chest subsided, until the sour medicine was almost gone.
When her eyes cleared, when her chest loosened a fraction, she slept. And when she woke, it was with a sudden and unwelcome sense of clarity: She had been left alone.
The news outlasts her parents by six days. She leaves it off, stops paying attention. In that self-focused way teenagers have, she thinks she must be the only person alive, even though the dwindling evidence to the contrary might play a drone to her empty thoughts. It doesn’t seem important now. Her world has already ended.
When she finally works up the nerve to turn the TV on, there is nothing but static, and she stares at it long enough for her ears to start humming, for her head to ache, as if the grainy pattern of pixels might form a human face and save her from this miserable nothingness.
She doesn’t leave the house. Her street is quiet, but where would she go? She knows what’s happened out there, and she won’t risk being exposed. She won’t even venture into her parents’ bedroom; if she doesn’t open the door, she won’t have to face what’s inside.
After ten days, the house starts to smell. Not strong, just a light, sour odor, like someone left a piece of meat in the fridge past its expiration date, or missed garbage day. They’re having a particularly warm spring, and though the air conditioner remains running, the circulator’s filter struggles with the odor.
There’s no food, save for the dregs of the carton of orange juice, and a box of graham crackers in the pantry. She picks at them, nibbling at the edges without relish, and puts the remains back in the crinkling wax wrapper to save for later. The water that comes from the faucet is warm but potable, and she dutifully fills her glass every hour as an obligation to her body, but her mind is somewhere else.
She’s begun to feel like the subject of a science experiment, like one of the frogs they dissected in biology class, splayed and poked and prodded by some unseen entity who’s waiting for her to break. The frog has the advantage of already being dead.
She wonders, with a certain amount of cold detachment, why she was left behind.
On day fourteen, she decides to open the door.
Their bedroom has always been a safe haven; small, but not cramped, and smelling of home. Her mother kept it neat, save for the dresser, which still contains an assortment of pictures and scraps, pieces of family life. She was an only child, and the dresser looms from across the room like a shrine to her childhood, everything but the lit candles and incense.
So much time has passed since the night they went to bed and didn’t wake up. She’s prepared for blood, for the smell that’s been circulating through the house, growing stronger and stronger. She wraps a damp cloth around her nose and mouth, tying it in the back, and dons a pair of yellow rubber cleaning gloves.
Nothing could prepare her for the sight.
Her mother had thrown off her blankets, the fever too much, and her hand hangs, pallid and gray across her bloated middle. Her nightgown his ridden up to reveal legs streaked with black veins, and Charlie feels her knees weaken, feels them becoming loose and disconnected. She stumbles, but doesn’t fall, taking care to lean against the wall.
She closes her eyes and counts to ten, then twenty, and thirty, like she does when her asthma is bad. In her hand, she clutches her inhaler, but her breath remains clear, unobstructed—small favors.
She reaches one-thousand before she opens her eyes. The same gruesome picture, but this time she forces herself to stay upright. The shape of her father lies on the opposite side of the bed, equally bloated. His mouth hangs open, and she takes a careful step toward the bed. Another, another, and after each one she is surprised to find her legs hold her weight, that her heart doesn’t stop in her chest.
There is blood, but not much. Around his mouth, mostly, and his nose—tiny flecks where he’d sneezed grace the stubble along his jaw, giving his naturally auburn beard a glaring reddish hue. They look strangely peaceful, eyes closed, mouths relaxed, and there is something to be said for a quiet death, but she doesn’t know what that might be. She doesn’t feel loss, not exactly; sadness, yes, but she senses things are different now. The world no longer has the luxury of mourning.
She’s close enough to reach out and touch him now, close enough to lean down to give her father a kiss on his lightly bloodied cheek, but she doesn’t. Some hateful thing inside her won’t let her touch their pallid skin; the hands that used to hold her are out of reach. She hadn’t been there in their final moments; she doesn’t deserve closure.
Something moves in the bed.
The air that’s drawn into her lungs feels hot and heavy and her throat slams shut. She can’t breathe, can only croak in surprise as the movement continues; her father’s stomach pulses, stretches and settles, the blanket shifting until it slides slightly off, revealing a blackened stomach, straining, rippling…
The sound comes from her mouth, tight and unrecognizable, and she sinks back, back, her hip slamming into the dresser hard enough to make pictures rattle and topple over the glossy wood surface. Something—a vase or mug, perhaps, some childish token of love—tips and rolls off the bureau, shattering on the hardwood floor, sprinkling the surface with glass. She can’t look away from the thing, the thing that used to be her dad that’s now moving, oh dear God, it’s moving…
Her hand pushes off the dresser, enough forward momentum to break the horrible spell, the hold this strange experience has on her, and she steps through broken glass and struggles to the door that seems so far away now.
Her foot is cut, a shard embedded deep in her left heel, but she doesn’t feel it as she stumbles into the hall and down the stairs, fleeing to the kitchen, to the spot under the table where she used to play when she was little, amongst the graham cracker crumbs.
She curls up on the floor, shivering, the dull ache in her foot taking over, and no amount of counting to ten can make this stop hurting.
Her neck is sore, her shoulder throbs, and her foot is on fire. She struggles to wake, notes the dust bunnies drifting around her, the familiar patina of the kitchen cupboards in front of her, but how strange, that they’re so tall, and she is so small. Alice, who ate the wrong cookie and woke up in Wonderland.
She blinks, shakes her aching head. No…no, you’re on the floor…you were…
She sits up, nearly bumping her head on the underside of the table in the process, and tenderly reaches to examine her bloody foot. There’s a trail of red from the door of the kitchen, she can see the source of the wound that’s causing her so much pain.
She shudders at the vague memory of visiting her parents’ room, and why she fell asleep on the kitchen floor like a four-year-old.
She stills the onslaught of panic with a short burst from her inhaler, more for comfort than necessity; her lungs feel tight, but the taste of the medicine is soothing, allows her to focus.
She crawls out from under her strange bed and goes for the sink, adrenaline has left her thirsty. Nothing comes from the tap when she turns the knob, just a spatter of water and the groan of the pipes, and with a sinking stomach she realizes the power has finally gone out. It’s the first in a series of wake-up calls.
How long has it been like this? She wonders.
There are bottles of water in the fridge; she’d had the foresight not to drink them while the taps were still running, but there’s not enough saved to last more than a couple days, even if she’s careful. She’ll have to go out.
Go where? her mind asks, an innocent enough question with a terrible answer. She wonders if there was panic, or if everyone died as quietly as her parents, holed up in their homes to drift off into death.
She wonders if the others are moving, too.
Her stomach lurches. The fridge is still cold when she opens it and finds the water; the power can’t have been out long. Maybe it will come back…
She catches a glimpse out the kitchen window; their northern Las Vegas suburb is so quiet, so still. Not a soul on the streets, not even a dog or a roaming cat looking through the trash. She can see the neighbors’ yard, which is usually pristine and green, one of the brightest on the block, now growing brown at the edges, dead patches in the middle, like a rash spreading across the ground. No one has watered it for days, maybe weeks, and the desert is unforgiving to the lush sod.
The water tastes sweet on her dry, sour tongue. It’s so good, she guzzles half of it down before she remembers she meant to conserve it. There are two more bottles left, and she needs to come up with a plan to get more.
The noise comes from behind, startling her. The bottle drops from her hands and bounces, spilling out onto the floor.
Her head snaps up and her heart pounds. Someone is knocking at the door, calling out.
“Charlotte? Are you there?”
A male voice, but unfamiliar.
How does he know my name?
She swallows, closes her eyes, and sinks into the corner. Maybe if she’s quiet, he’ll go away. The blinds in the living room are drawn, he won’t be able to see in…maybe he’ll go away.
The knocking persists, and then stops abruptly. No one calls out. She dares to breathe again, taking in short gasps of air, clutching the inhaler in her pocket, dimly aware that it is as precious a resource as the water in the fridge.
Don’t move. Don’t move.
Her hands clamp themselves over her mouth when the pounding starts. The door shudders under the weight of her intruder, and her mind flutters like a panicked bird, beating its wings helplessly against the walls of its prison. She reaches up, fumbling at the drawer above her, instinctively seeking a weapon, not that she knows how to wield it if it comes to that.
And it’s going to come to that, she thinks wildly, withdrawing a steak knife. It’s going to, so you’d better stand up. Stand up, get on your feet.
She does, her hands shaking violently, holding the knife awkwardly in front of her. She’s standing in a puddle of spilled water, and it stings the cut on her foot, but she can’t feel it over the rush of blood at her throat. The incessant pounding continues, and she stifles a moan. She can just see the kitchen door from this angle, throbbing inward, until it finally gives way with a shuddering groan.
Who are you? Get out of here! her mind screams, but no words come out. The daylight is blinding, blocking her view as the knife wavers wildly in front of her.
“Charlotte, I want to help you.”
“Go…go away,” she croaks.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” his voice is soft, soothing, and she’s so confused, so terrified, and it sounds so tempting…
“Please,” she murmurs as he steps into the shadows, pausing so she can make out his features; lean, narrow, kind eyes, stark white hair. A total stranger. “Please.”
“It’s OK, Charlotte,” he says, and he smiles, a bright, white smile that’s almost unnatural. But still, his eyes are kind, and he’s the first person she’s seen in…well, she doesn’t know exactly how long. At least two weeks.
“I’m here to help,” he says carefully, watching her as the knife wavers in her hands. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Robert Mosely, but you can call me whatever you like,” he says carefully. “I used to work at your hospital, remember? You came in for your asthma treatments when you were a little girl…such a brave little girl…”
She squints, trying to recall his face, but her memories of those days are hazy and twelve years gone.
“Why should I trust you?” she asks.
“Because you’re a smart girl,” he says, eyes shifting back and forth between the knife and her face. “Because your parents are dead, Charlotte, and you don’t know where else to go. Because you know that something bad has happened, and you need a friend. I’d like to be your friend,” he says.
He smiles again, bright and gentle, and her hands lower the flimsy weapon a fraction. “Because you’re special, Charlotte. You know it. You’re a survivor,” he insists. “And all the survivors are special.”
“Why? Why did I survive?”
“In time,” he answers. “Right now, we need to go to a safe place. This…this house won’t be safe soon,” he says, glancing upstairs but never letting the calm, soothing tenor waver from his voice. “I have a…a home, of sorts. I’d like to bring you there. There are others, just like us. Special ones. Survivors.”
Her mind rattles in its lonely cage. The thought that there might be others, other people like her, is a foreign one. She hadn’t dared to believe it, but Robert…Mosely…whoever he was…
“It’s OK,” he whispers again, reaching out his hand, taking the risk.
She relinquishes the knife with a soft squeak. It clatters to the floor, and he smiles again. “Good…good.” His eyes shift again to the upstairs bedroom, as if he knows whatever is up there will come for them.
They were moving, the bodies were moving, like there was something inside…
Her throat closes without warning, her chest grows tight, and she draws in a ragged breath at the thought of leaving her parents to this fate. He senses her unrest, gestures to the inhaler.
“Use it,” he says encouragingly. “There’s plenty more. I’ll take care of you.”
She brings the inhaler to her lips, never taking her eyes off her strange new caretaker, wondering how her life could be so changed in so little time.
“Come,” he says, beckoning, and she does, following him out the door and into the bright summer heat.
She doesn’t look back.