Into the Woods
It began in Boston with the birds. All of a sudden they started getting sick and dropping dead. And the ones that weren’t sick and dying started to fly south. I mean all of the birds flew south. It was the most bizarre thing to look up and see so many forms moving across the sky, almost like an airborne army marching through the clouds in unison. Had we known better we would have packed up and followed. But what could we have done really? Bought ourselves an extra day or two maybe? After the birds the virus hit us. People, I mean. Everyone on the East Coast was getting sick so quickly and there wasn’t much you could do once you got it. The fever came first, then terrible headaches, then seizures, then death. It started during the holidays and with so many people traveling the spread was fast and violent. The CDC and government were in a panic. At first the president urged us to stay calm, stay home and report to hospitals only if you had symptoms. But then the hospitals were overrun. The virus had spread as far as Kansas after a few weeks. There were just too many people dying and there didn’t seem to be a way to stop it. Soon there were bodies in the street right outside our door.
I’ll never forget it, staring out my bedroom window and seeing a woman just lying there on the sidewalk, a pool of vomit next to her face. Her color had faded and she almost didn’t seem real with that sickly gray pallor covering her flesh. That was where I had learned to ride my bike. When I was five my Dad and I made handprints in the cement when the city fixed the slab. We used to sit there and eat popsicles in the summer. I kissed my friend Will while standing on that sidewalk when we were 12, my first kiss, and now it was where this woman died. Alone and in pain with no hope of being saved. One month from the time the virus was first mentioned on the news and people were dying in the streets.
I decided to give her a name, the woman on the sidewalk. Mary. On January 10, 2022, Mary died in Humble, Ohio on a sidewalk. Someone loved her and would miss her very much but they were probably dead too. So did it even matter? Did she matter?
I could hear my family moving around downstairs, packing and organizing supplies. We were some of the lucky ones my mom kept saying. None of us were sick and none of us were going to get sick.
“If you don’t go near anyone, then you can’t catch it, right? So, we’ll just ride it out.” That was Mom’s mantra for a whole month.
She saved us. I thought she was crazy at first and told her so several times but somehow she saw it coming and she saved us. If she hadn’t forced us to stay home then I would’ve been at my friend’s house or in a movie theater, Dad would’ve gone to work, Mike would’ve been at the gym and it would’ve gotten us like it had gotten to almost everyone else. We would have all been dead in a matter of weeks.
"There'll be no living with her now," my father would tease. "Yes honey, I remember when you saved us all from the apocalypse," he'd say with a sardonic tone. Dad was good at that, finding humor where he probably shouldn't. Making us smile at the worst of times. He was really good at that.
I crept down the hallway from my bedroom and sat at the top of the stairs to watch and listen to my parents as they packed. They moved around one another almost as if they were dancing. A synchronized motion which only comes from spending everyday with the person you love. My mom was a knockout, everyone said so. Gorgeous auburn hair and soft, delicate features. Her eyes were kind too. Even when she was upset with us her eyes, although critical, always held a sweetness. My dad was tall and athletic. He used to run track in high school and was still running almost every day up until the virus broke out, then he was resigned to the treadmill only what with us being put on lockdown. His dark brown hair had become speckled with age but he wore it well. Together they were a couple to envy. That’s what my Aunt Serena always called them anyway, an enviable couple.
They had been pretty calm about the whole situation, all things considered. After everyone in the U.S. knew how bad the virus was and how bad it was going to get, my parents just sort of went into planning mode. Mom really excelled at planning. She worked in insurance and so threat analysis was sort of her thing. Who knew it would come in so handy one day? We had enough food and supplies to get us through another couple months at the house but then we would have to go. Mom didn’t want to wait until it was too late. She’d done the math and soon everyone else would too. If things didn’t get better, soon the electricity and water would be gone and we would be screwed. Our cell service and Wi-Fi had already been spotty with the influx of calls and streaming during the beginning of the outbreak. The electricity had flickered on and off several times as well, another warning that our days of modern luxuries might be numbered. The government had set up so-called Safe Zones but my mom wasn't having it. She kept saying if they couldn't prevent this from happening and if they couldn’t stop it now then there was no point in trusting them. So we were going to Dad’s family cabin about an hour away in Hillsboro. It was secluded and easy to secure and we could stay there as long as we needed to, unless things got worse. I had no idea at the time what worse could possibly mean since things already seemed to be as bad as they could get.
"It'll be great," Mom said to no one in particular as she stuffed another sweater in a bag. "It'll be like when the kids were little and we'd go hiking and fish. We'll make it fun." She looked satisfied with herself for saying this, as if it would cement the lie in a stone of truth.
"Yeah, fun," my dad echoed. "We’ll have a really fun family vacation escaping the deadly virus sweeping across the country.”
A small giggle escaped me.
“Thank you for that, Jackson,” Mom said. “As always, you being a total smartass is really helpful.” She grinned a little in spite of herself then quickly turned to me as if an alarm had gone off alerting her I was sitting around doing nothing. “Sam, come down and give us a hand with the sleeping bags please. They’re all wadded up in a mess.”
“There’s a dead person outside. In case anyone cares.” I don’t know why I said it like that but I did. Everyone paused for a minute and exchanged a quick look then kept on with their task as if I’d said nothing at all.
“Well that’s one of the many reasons we are leaving,” Mom replied coolly. “So please come down and help.”
I swear sometimes nothing would rattle that woman. I plodded down the stairs and started the task of folding and rolling the sleeping bags. My dad gave me a wink as he passed by with a cardboard box full of canned food, our food for the foreseeable future. As always the TV was on in the background showing the latest updates on our current status. How many dead, how many will be dead, when they think we will stop dying. It wasn’t exactly a feel good show. There weren’t any more feel good things. Just panic and fear everywhere. It had become the permanent backdrop to every day. Death. Death was the low hum of a fan or the constant rolling of the ocean waves on a beach. All day, death.
Mike kicked the sleeping bag I was folding and stuck his tongue out in an exaggerated juvenile taunt. I replied with an equally ridiculous face, crossing my eyes and puffing out my cheeks. My big brother was really a sweetheart and we got along pretty well most of the time. He was a senior and only two years older than me which meant I’d been torturing him from day one, not that he ever complained. Mike was a lot like Mom in that way, very kind and always calm. I did not inherit the same genes he did. Patience and good will always seemed tedious to me while it was simply just in his nature. He’d put up with a lot but whenever I did get on his nerves he’d just laugh and tell me I had “little dog syndrome”, an ongoing jab at my lack of height. Mike was a big guy, super popular, and did really well on the wrestling team at school which meant he could’ve been a real jerk if he wanted to, but he wasn’t. It was no small feat that he ended up as sweet as he was and only mildly self-absorbed for a teenager. He’d always been there for me whenever I needed him and he was always looking out for me even when I was being an ass, which was a lot. He was my rock. That’s why it was such a shock when I’d found him in front of the TV two nights before we left for the cabin.
It was clear from his face he’d been crying. Before this all happened, I never thought I’d see my brother cry; he was so proud, so guarded with his emotions. I started to leave him quietly so as not to embarrass him but I couldn’t turn away. I just stared at his tear drenched face and took it in. Seeing him breakdown like that rooted a dark coldness inside me and I could feel it growing. A coldness born of fear and hate, twisting in my soul and threatening to grow larger. I hated whoever did this to us. I hated that everyone I knew was dying. And I hated seeing my brother cry. I went and sat next to him, not knowing what else to do. At first I thought he’d be ashamed but he didn’t care, not anymore. He told me we’d be okay. That Mom and Dad would take care of us, and he would take care of me. He could see how freaked out I was about leaving.
“I promise I’ll always take care of you, Sam. We’re going to be fine.”
I cried harder than I ever had before and he let me. After a while, when I had calmed down, he told me, “This is the last time we get to do this, Sam. After tonight, no more tears. This is going to be a new world and it’s not going to be like it was before. Not ever again. You can be sad and you can hate, but no more tears. You have to be strong. Stronger than you ever thought you could be. If you’re strong, you’ll survive. Promise me. No more tears, okay? Promise?”
I nodded as if I understood but I didn’t know if it was a promise I could keep. I turned toward the television and watched people I didn’t know anything about who lived in a country I probably couldn’t find on a map, dancing in the streets and burning our flag. They were celebrating. Hundreds of thousands of American lives were gone and these people were celebrating. Several radical terrorist groups had taken responsibility for the outbreak, claiming it as a victory for their people and their God. Publicly screaming to their followers that they had destroyed the American infidels and now their God would reward them. No one knew yet who had actually done it or exactly why, but we did know it was a calculated attack.
The virus had been engineered and delivered to Boston in November where it began to spread across the country. A shipment of infected poultry was the perfect carrier. It attacked the local bird population, causing a ton of concern for our feathered friends until people started getting sick as well. Then it was too late. The virus had spread to humans, just as it was meant to. The death toll on the East Coast was astronomical and showed no signs of slowing. Many fingers were being pointed but everyone who was capable of such an attack was denying it, so far anyway. The president had been making a lot of angry speeches about justice and finding the people responsible, saying our government would stop at nothing to bring retribution to our citizens. Too bad for him a lot of people were sending the blame his way for creating dangerous tension over new trade tariffs. I’d never bothered to pay attention to the news or politics, but I remember intently ignoring my Government teacher last year as he went on an epic rant about why our president had been elected. In an attempt to spark a debate, he was making a big scene about how an outsider would “shake things up”, whatever that meant. Things were definitely shaken up, but I doubt this was what he had in mind. All we knew for certain was our entire country was in real danger of being wiped out and no one knew who was truly at fault. Soon enough there would be no denying it. The world would know the truth and there would be no going back.
Mom’s voice snapped me back to the present. “Sam, when you’re finished day-dreaming please go make sure you have your bag packed. I don’t want any last-minute drama tomorrow about what you’re bringing.”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t bother to hide it. Mom was really getting on my nerves lately. Okay so maybe “lately” wasn’t super accurate, more like “forever”. It wasn’t just that we’d been trapped in the house together since November. It’d started before, years ago actually. But it seemed the older I got the further apart we grew. I wasn’t sure why and most of the time I didn’t even think about the why. I just knew she had clearly been put on this earth to torture me and remind me of all my many flaws. Dad said we always butted heads because we were so alike, which surely had to be one of his jokes I just didn’t get. I loved my parents and they were really pretty great compared to some of the other parents I’d met. But most of the time I felt like I was falling short in my mother’s eyes. She always looked at me like she wanted to say something but then wouldn’t, like she was holding something back. I just assumed she was trying not to hurt my feelings by keeping her disappointment to herself. She had never been really affectionate with me which I didn’t think was odd until I got older and could see how other moms acted. They were constantly hovering and giving so many hugs that their kids were pushing them away. But not her, she always kept her distance. It was as if she didn’t even want me there in the first place. Sometimes I’d catch her watching me with that critical stare and it would drive me nuts. Most of the time I tried not to care. She was just different, or maybe I was. Alright, I definitely was different but that didn’t mean I was imagining her strangeness. Either way, things were the way they were and there didn’t seem to be a way to change it.
We finished packing up our house and prepared to say goodbye. Every room looked so foreign all of a sudden. I was still in disbelief that we had to leave in the morning. I had lived in that home all my life. My room with the awesome paint colors I’d picked out, the kitchen where we made Christmas cookies every year, the family room where Mike and I battled over possession of the remote control. I didn’t know if we’d ever see any of it again. Sleep came to me late that night and with a heavy apprehension of changes to come. How long would we have to be gone? Would our house be okay or would it get trashed like some of the places I’d seen on the news? It freaked me out to think about some stranger coming into my room and going through all my things. I tossed and struggled with my blanket fidgeting for comfort that wouldn’t come. Finally, I passed out while watching videos on my phone. Footage of survivors trying to cross into neighboring states in the west where the spread hadn’t been so bad.
A reporter narrated the scene. “With all air travel closed to civilians, thousands of people have taken to the road in an attempt to seek refuge in what they believe to be safer states. The travel ban is still being enforced and citizens are urged to remain home for their own safety or seek shelter in one of the many emergency facilities across the Midwest. However, as you can see from the standstill traffic on our highways, few are adhering to that travel ban.”
Cars were lined up for what seemed like endless miles, a torturous parade of the doomed trying to escape but succeeding only in creeping closer to their fate.
They won’t make it, I thought to myself.
I awoke the next morning to my mother sitting on my bed, her hand gently nudging my arm. Her head was tilted as she watched the sleep leave my face and confusion set in.
“Everything’s alright. It’s just time to get ready. We’re leaving in an hour, okay?”
It wasn’t okay but I nodded groggily.
“Good. Breakfast is downstairs when you’re ready.” She paused and reached a hand out to brush the dark strands of hair that had fallen across my forehead. She smiled sweetly but couldn’t seem to find the words she wanted. “You know I love you right, Sam?”
It wasn’t like her to be overly mushy. It’d caught me off guard.
“Mom, of course I do,” I said annoyed.
“Good.” Her face warmed with a smile and once again I could see she had more to say but didn’t. What was she holding back? “I’ll see you downstairs in a bit.” She closed the door and I heard her footsteps fade down the hall.
They told us to take only what we couldn’t live without but when you’re 16 that feels like everything. I stood in the middle of my bedroom slowly turning in a circle and wished for the hundredth time for this to be just a dream. I had packed almost all my clothes last night, all the practical ones anyway and some of my favorite books too. With resentment and sadness, I quickly grabbed a few pictures off the wall above my desk and stuffed them into my favorite backpack. Photos of my best friend Nia and me making ridiculous faces and torturing each other’s hair into awful updos. I hadn’t heard from her in a week. Last time we’d talked she was going to the hospital with her parents and she was really scared. She had begged them to let her stay home so she wouldn’t catch it but her dad was sick and her mom didn’t know what else to do. I’d probably never see her again.
My brother and I ate our oatmeal in silence as Mom and Dad loaded the last of our belongings into the jeep. We had to wear hospital masks around our necks in case we came close to other people.
“The threat of getting sick is still very real,” Mom was saying intently. “You don’t go near anyone or touch anyone. The second you see another person you put your mask on. Got it?”
“And if someone comes too close, you turn and run away.”
“Awesome pep-talk, Mom. I feel super pumped to go outside now.”
She ignored my snarky remark and went back to fluttering around all the piles of overly organized boxes and bags by the door.
Mike’s face was covered in disapproval. “Go easy on her, Sam. It’s a hard day for everyone.”
Ugh, his goodness was exhausting sometimes.
The chill punched me in the face as I stepped out onto our front porch, but the fresh air was a welcome gift. I breathed it in deeply and held the frost in my lungs for as long as I could before releasing it in a huge cloud. It seemed to float motionless in front of me in the dense air. I looked to my right knowing that Mary would still be on the sidewalk, but her outline was barely visible in the darkness. Mike gave me a nudge and we headed to the car. It was early in the morning when we left, before sunrise, hoping to avoid too many people. But it wasn’t as if folks would be getting up early for work. Unless you were military or worked at a hospital you were supposed to stay home. But then again, the news was full of reports and videos of people looting and terrorizing each other so we knew not everyone was playing by the rules. No one said it as we piled into the car but the fear was on all our minds. My dad turned and smiled at me from the front seat. He could see the apprehension on my face.
“Don’t worry,” he said casually, “no one ever woke up early to go looting, it just doesn’t happen. And besides, it’s really hard to incite a riot before eight am. No one’s even had their coffee yet.”
I grinned at his joke but my heart wasn’t in it. We only had to drive for about an hour so what could possibly go wrong in that amount of time, right?
Outside everything felt alien. I hadn’t been out of the house in over a month now and even the sensation of riding in a car felt strange. The landscape in our neighborhood was much changed as well. What was once an upper class suburb with perfect lawns and inviting houses was now more like a decaying ghost town. Some people had boarded up their windows and doors, some houses had been broken into and all but destroyed, and there were several dogs walking around confused and shivering; their families most likely dead or too sick to care for them. Snow still covered the grass and there were sad looking Christmas decorations everywhere that might never come down. A stillness hung in the air that often accompanies winter. I used to welcome it, the crisp calm that signaled holidays and winter break. But today somehow it felt ominous as if the silence was a false promise of safe travels ahead. I didn’t know it at the time but there would be no more safe travels for anyone anymore.
We passed no other drivers on the road as we left our neighborhood, only abandoned cars scattered randomly along the sidelines, and it was sheer luck the weather had been in our favor. If we’d had a big snow then we would have been trapped in the house since no one was out clearing the roads. Of course luck had nothing to do with it. Mom had planned our exit down to the minute, I just didn’t know it at the time. Our next obstacle would be the roadblocks just outside the city limits. After the virus had started to claim so many lives and was showing no signs of stopping, the military and local law enforcement had been assigned to checkpoints at heavily populated areas and no one was allowed in or out. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of the checkpoints that morning, that we might not even be allowed to leave. After all, we were good people just heading out of town for a bit. No big deal. But everyone was supposed to stay home to help prevent the spread of the virus. So, by leaving we were technically breaking the law. It was just a question of whether or not someone would be there to enforce it. Dad slowed the car as we approached the first roadblock to the highway but no one was there. The guard posts were empty and easily maneuvered around so it didn’t look like we’d be getting arrested just then.
Several yards away I saw a man standing in his front lawn as we drove past. He was wearing a coat over his pajamas and standing stock still over a large fire on the ground. I couldn’t tell for sure what he was burning but it resembled the shape of a body wrapped in a blanket. He glanced up as our car rolled by and our eyes met for the briefest moment, his expression defeated and dark. A chill ran through me and I quickly turned to face forward again. Five minutes later we made it to the interstate on-ramp and everyone audibly exhaled as we slowed to pass another roadblock which had clearly also been abandoned. No guards, no trucks, and the wooden sawhorse barricades had been hastily knocked aside. For some reason this didn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy.
“Where has everyone gone? The news said theses checkpoints are still manned. Why aren’t there any guards anymore?” I asked nervously.
My parents’ faces were mirror expressions of worry. “They were probably needed somewhere else. Maybe things aren’t so bad here anymore so they went to help other people,” Mom said with an assuring tone.
“Well said, Ally my sweet. That’s why you’re the brains of this operation. Mom’s right, Sam. All of the states neighboring California are freaking out, so I bet some of our local military was pulled out there to help.”
It was clear that wasn’t the truth but I didn’t want to argue. In hindsight I suppose I didn’t really want to hear the truth. I was such a child still and all I wanted was the comfort of a parent’s empty promise that everything would be okay. Mom switched on the radio to the news and Terri Greene, the Director of the CDC, was being interviewed again for what had to be the thousandth time. Every station was constantly running and re-running her latest updates and it was getting to feel like something was missing from your day if you didn’t hear her voice.
“Why do you think your team is having such a difficult time attacking this virus?” asked the reporter.
“Well to be honest it is killing us so quickly that it should stop spreading soon. The loss of life has been catastrophic but should slow down over the next several months as long as people continue to take precautions and avoid coming into contact with one another.”
“Mm-hmm, I see. But why exactly is this something we can’t stop right now? How long will it take to develop a vaccine?”
“I don’t have a good answer for you, I’m afraid. This virus, we’ve started referring to as Avian-X, does not behave like any other deadly strain we are familiar with and so it is taking us some time to get to know it. And we are working short-handed due to so many of our employees having been on holiday vacation when this viral attack was released.”
“Avian-X? Did I hear you correctly?”
“Yes. Most viruses are named after their origin or their proteins but there are too many unknowns here so we went with X, the mathematical unknown. This virus was engineered as a weapon and unfortunately it is an incredibly effective one. Right now we are following the facts and we are confident we will have all the answers soon. We do know a shipment of birds into Boston was the Trojan horse, so to speak, and it spread from birds to humans very fast. It does mimic a few well known culprits in some respects, specifically the Asian Flu, and we at the CDC are working day and night and we will not stop until we know how to beat it. I know it is frustrating and terrifying but even in this modern age we are susceptible to outbreaks like this. The Spanish Flu epidemic was only 100 years ago, claimed nearly 100 million lives worldwide and had a 10 to 20 percent mortality rate. And that was just nature doing what it does. This virus we are faced with now was created to kill and that’s exactly what it is doing.”
“I see. And what is the mortality rate of this virus we are battling now? The Avian-X virus.”
A long silence passed before she spoke. “As far as we can tell it is 100 percent. We have had no reports of anyone surviving the infection. But we are hopeful.”
“Thank you, Terri. We’ll let you get back to work and we appreciate your time. That was Terri Greene, Director of the CDC talking to us live from inside one of the CDC’s labs in an undisclosed location. As always we want to remind our listeners to stay safe, stay home, stay away from each other as much as possible, and cover up. Stay tuned for updated information on local supply drops. If you are in need, relief is on the way. In other news…”
It wasn’t a very hopeful interview. Mom flipped the radio off and we all sat in silence. It must’ve been about 20 minutes but after a while the lull of tires beating against the road won me over and I drifted off to sleep briefly. I don’t know how long I was out but I awoke to my mom’s voice sounding urgent.
“Turn around! Turn around!” she was yelling from the passenger seat as she hit my dad’s arm frantically.
The car lurched forward as my dad slammed on the brakes and I was jerked out of my stupor, flying towards the front seat violently as my seatbelt was put to the test. The road was icy and we slid for a minute, coming to rest at an awkward angle in the middle of the highway. Grabbing the back of the driver’s seat and leaning in I quickly took stock of what was happening. About 100 feet in front of us there was a group of pickup trucks blocking the highway and several men with large guns pointed at us. A few of them were running toward us as Dad threw the car into reverse and violently turned it around. The tires slid wildly across the ice, grasping for traction.
“Get down!” he yelled. Just as I ducked behind the seat I heard gunshots blasting through the air and bouncing off the road.
Mom was shouting, “Drive! Drive!”
Mike shoved me even further to the floor as we were both jerked awkwardly around. The tires spun and the jeep finally found its footing as it lunged forward, now pointing in the direction we had just come from. I could hear the men yelling from behind us but couldn’t make out their words. I peeked over the backseat and watched them fade into the distance as we sped off. Mike was doing the same and his eyes were as wide as mine felt. He gave me a “you okay?” face and I nodded.
“I don’t think they’re following us, Dad,” he said.
“Thanks, Mike. Keep an eye out for me, would you?”
Mike nodded, his face calm but pale.
I’d never heard a gunshot before. Not a real one anyway and I was completely freaked out.
“Who was that? What did they want? Why did they shoot at us?” I asked shaken.
My mom whipped around in her seat and shot a panicked face at both of us, her eyes searching us up and down.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt at all?” She grabbed my arm as if touching me would magically heal me should I have been injured in some way.
I shook my head. “No, I’m fine. Mom, what did they want?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they wanted our supplies. Maybe they were trying to protect their town and keep people out. Or maybe they’re just bad men who like scaring and hurting people. I don’t know. All I know is you can’t trust people anymore. It’s not safe outside of our family. Okay? I know it’s scary but that’s how things are now. Stay away from people.”
She was breathing heavily from the adrenaline and her face was serious and intense in a way I’d never seen before. Apparently she could be rattled after all.
I nodded but the reality of our situation hadn’t really sunk in yet. How could it? I was just a dumb teenager, and probably a spoiled one at that. How could I have known the true depravity of human nature?
Dad’s knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. His always easy-going face was completely tense and it was freaking me out to see him that way.
“Dad, I hate to be a buzz kill. But you’re driving the wrong way on the highway.”
A nervous laugh escaped him and his face started to morph back into its usual carefree expression.
“Thank you, dear. I noticed that too. Don’t worry. I’m getting off and trying some back roads from here. We’re about halfway so this will add another 30 minutes but we’ll be fine. There’s always more than one way to get to where you’re going. Right? We’ll be fine.”
I tried to calm down as I stared out the windows at the barren forests surrounding the highway. In the fall this would have been beautiful. Just three months ago the trees would’ve been an array of oranges, yellows, and reds hugging the road on either side; a gorgeous view that promised cool nights with hot chocolate and campfires. Maybe I could have even tricked myself into thinking we were taking a trip instead of going deeper into hiding. But in the depths of winter it was stark and frigid. Enormous icicles like fingers of the dead hung hauntingly from scraggily limbs. The trees were lifeless and the woods seemed to echo the depression and loss that surrounded everything in our world at that moment. I felt like one of those trees, a once-vibrant thing driven into hiding from the cold threatening to takeover my very soul. With an intentional breath I clouded my window and erased them from sight choosing to stare at the frayed edges of my coat sleeve instead.
The roads Dad followed were clear for the most part. We were definitely in a rural area now and most of the houses were set back from the main roads, barely visible as we passed. Occasionally I would see smoke floating up from someone’s chimney and I longed to be in their place. Secure behind a door with a fire to keep them warm. I felt exhausted but there was no way I was going to sleep again, not after what had just happened. Mike was still turned sideways in his seat, occasionally staring out the back window keeping watch.
I pulled up my phone and tried for the hundredth time to message Nia but the message wouldn’t go through so I turned on my news app out of boredom. I clicked on the latest video report labeled, Breaking News out of Albuquerque: Mass Looting and Hysteria. The video was bouncy at best and showed a group of people kicking a man on the ground. He was covering his head but there were five men attacking him and he didn’t stand a chance. His arms began to fall and he soon lay limp on the concrete as the beating continued. In the background people were running every direction. Some were stumbling out of a store with their arms full and others were sprinting away screaming. It was chaos. The video stopped and a black line appeared across the screen. No service. Streaming had been spotty since the spread began and my patience with the problem had worn way past thin.
“My phone went out,” I said to Mike. “Do you have service?”
He checked and quickly shook his head. “Probably not many cell towers out here.”
I scowled and switched off the power button. Losing the easy access of modern technology had been painful and I wasn’t ready to resign myself to the dark ages just yet.
“Ugh, why does this keep happening?” I whined to no one in particular.
Mom turned around. “Well, the system has been overloaded with the massive amounts of people communicating about the virus. That’s why we haven’t had reliable service at home. But your brother is right about the cell towers. We probably won’t have service at all when we get to the cabin.”
I rolled my eyes and slumped back in my seat annoyed. Stupid viral outbreak.
Mom futilely tried to calm me down. “The power was going off at home too, remember? It might be that there just aren’t enough people anymore working to control where the power is routed. That’s another reason we’re heading out here. We wouldn’t make it at home for very long without power.”
I’d already heard this before so it wasn’t really helping. An indignant, “right,” was all I replied. I never did have much patience for not getting my way.
We were in the car for another hour when we finally reached the back gravel roads that led to the cabin. An enormous sign reading, Middle of Nowhere would have been appropriate but instead it read, Hillsboro. There were neighbors here, we passed at least three mailboxes, but you could go years without having to see one. Everyone respected each other’s property lines and only lost outsiders occasionally wandered through when hunting and hiking. I hadn’t been here for several years but I had such happy memories of the place from when I was a kid. It was a long drive off of the main road which is why the location appealed so much to my parents at that moment. When human contact is turned into a weapon, seclusion becomes a very good thing. Seclusion is what would save our lives. The gravel road wound around and around, taking at times deep plunges downward then turning into steep upward climbs almost instantly. It was like riding a slow motion roller coaster but with a straight drop on one side into a deep gorge full of trees and fallen branches. The very real possibility of death probably made it a little less fun than a roller coaster.
Marked only by an old metal sign hanging amongst the overgrown branches, soon the turn onto the driveway was in sight. The letters, barely legible now with years of rust and wear, read Sharp’s Shanty. My Grandpa, Garrett Sharp, had made the sign himself almost 50 years ago. We stopped as we passed and removed it, something that pained my father greatly but he said we didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves. We did our best to cover the entrance to the drive with fallen branches and brush and when we were finished the entrance wasn’t noticeable from the road unless you knew where to find it. Soon the wind and snow would cover our tracks even more and any trace of us would completely vanish into the woods.
The whole area was quite hilly and the driveway, mostly grass and gravel, wound a ways up and down before the cabin would come into sight. It was slow going with the ground still so icy, our jeep slid and jolted uncontrollably for most of it. I didn’t think we’d even make it up the last hill but after a few false starts Dad had it. Once we came over the top the trees quickly broke apart and there perched over the lake with woods on either side, sat the cabin. It was small and quaint but perfect and we all breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of it. All of us except for Dad. I think he had been hoping to see another car there waiting for us; his brother’s. They had been in contact since the beginning of the outbreak but we hadn’t heard from him in the past week which could have meant anything, but likely it meant the worst. Dad was hoping he had come here with my cousins and we would all be together.
Mom reached over and gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “They’re probably just stuck at home. We’ll see them again soon.” She was lying but it sounded convincing enough.
They’re not stuck at home. They’re dead like everyone else. I shouldn’t have thought it but looking on the bright side wasn’t one of my strengths.
We sat for a minute. I should have felt guilty that I was relieved while everyone else was silently grieving, but I didn’t. No part of me had been looking forward to being cramped in a tiny cabin with my two obnoxious little cousins. And besides, they might be fine. Dad’s face said it all though, he thought they were dead too.
Mike signaled for me to get out with him to leave our parents alone for a second.
I stepped out of the jeep and surveyed what was to be our home for…well, who knew how long. The frigid January air whipped my ponytail around as I turned to soak up the view and my boots squeaked in the snow-covered grass. Off in the distance an animal in the woods could be heard making a hasty retreat through the crunching leaves, likely confused to hear people on its property. Grey clouds threatening more snow hung heavy above us as I grabbed my backpack and made my way to the cabin door, following in Mike’s footsteps. Large spider webs, some long abandoned, hung lazily around the doorway. Dad turned the key and we all filed in.
Mom immediately got to work, of course. I swear sometimes it was exhausting just watching her.
“Alright, I’ll check the fuse box and hopefully we’ll have light and heat for a while anyway. Jack, can you take a look at the generator?”
“Of course, anything for you. And what exactly am I looking for? Suspicious behavior? Bad manners?”
She snorted, “Never mind. I will go check it out.”
Dad started unloading the car while Mike and I walked around, taking it all in. The interior was more about function than beautiful décor. The kitchen was small but there was a stove and sink with exposed shelves running along the L-shaped corner wall. There was also a refrigerator and enough counter space to accomplish most kitchen tasks. The rest of the floor was open with a dining table in front of large windows and a view of the lake, a sitting area with mismatched sofa and chairs around the fireplace, and a single door at the back of the room that I recalled was a small bedroom. Right next to that was a tiny bathroom, something not all cabins around here had, and I was eternally grateful for it. But it would be useless if we didn’t have running water. The thought of having to trek out to an old outhouse made my lip curl in disgust. Above the back half of the space and overlooking the main room was a large loft area with several beds. My cousins and I used to sleep up there whenever we came to visit. We’d sit up at night giggling and telling stories. I walked over to the stone fireplace that hugged the wall all the way up to the ceiling and ran a finger along the black soot that had collected over the years.
If I concentrated, I could almost hear the sound of my cousins squealing and shrieking as they ran up into the loft trying to get away from me. I was twelve and had found a baby snake sunning itself on the steps outside. Some kids would have only watched it, admiring its black scales shining purple in the sunlight, some kids would have run away frightened, but I snatched it up and chased my cousins around in pure delight at their terror. My reign as scary snake-lady was short-lived as Mike quickly stepped in with his disapproving frown and a frustrated, “Sam, really?” He returned the baby reptile to the woods unharmed and my cousins wouldn’t talk to me for two whole days.
“Hello? Don’t I have two amazing and strong children who are capable of carrying things?” my dad taunted from the doorway with his hands full of bags and boxes.
I smiled, “Sorry, just looking around.”
Mike hopped up from the couch. “Yeah, Sam. Stop being so lazy,” he teased as he shoved me aside with a laugh.
Mike and I both took turns hauling loads in. Clothes, food, camping gear, cooking supplies, and whatever personal stuff we all had packed. It took less time than I expected to transport our lives which only made me realize how much we’d left behind. Mom was able to get the electricity switched on and soon we had light and heat. On one of my return trips from the car I noticed the shelves in the kitchen weren’t empty. In fact, they had been totally stocked with canned goods and bottles of water before we’d arrived. Mom was stashing things away and cleaning up as we brought everything in.
“Where did all this come from, Mom?” I asked, pointing to the shelves.
She shrugged, “Must be a fairy godmother,” and with a smile she went back to unpacking.
Geez, she could be so annoying sometimes. She was avoiding the question but why? When did she have time to do this? And how long ago? I started to ask her again but my dad’s voice interrupted me.
“Sam,” he called from outside. “Come on out and help me get some fire wood together.”
I walked outside and met him over by the west tree line. He was staring at the thick forest with his hands on his hips, seeming to study every detail of his surroundings.
“Yeah. Over here. I sent your brother to clean out the loft. Let’s get a wood pile started so we don’t freeze to death. There’s still a lot of winter left and were going to need it. I don’t want to be running the generator all the time.”
He picked up a small hand saw near his feet and we walked into the woods a few steps.
“Why don’t you gather kindling first and I’ll grab some bigger branches.”
“Sure. What the hell is kindling?” I asked confused.
“Geez you’re such a city kid. How did that happen?” he said with a smile. “Anything that’s small in diameter to get our fire started. Twigs.” He had always been a city kid too so the joke wasn’t lost on me. He used to make fun of the fact that he much preferred a concrete jungle while Mom was partial to the real thing. In fact, if it weren’t for Mom we probably never would have taken trips to the cabin at all.
We worked together in silence for a time and we both had collected a solid amount of smaller wood piles up against the house when he finally spoke again.
“I need to talk to you, Sam. I’m not sure how to do this but I’m going to do my best. There are going to be things you and your brother need to learn how to do now. The next few weeks I want to make sure that you’re paying attention to your mom and me. If something should happen to us I need to know that you’ll be prepared, that you’ll be able to take care of yourself. I’m going to talk to your brother too but you need to understand that things are different for you because you’re a woman.”
He held up a hand in defense as my mouth flew open to protest.
“I don’t mean that you’re less capable, in fact probably the opposite. What I mean is the world is going to treat you differently because you’re a woman. It’s not fair but it’s true. Today on the road made it really clear to me that our world is changing and quickly. Those men back on the highway…men like that will see you as a victim, as an easy target. And I won’t let you be a victim. You’ll need to learn to survive but that also means knowing how to protect yourself. With any luck, all this will blow over soon and we can laugh about this conversation someday. But right now, things are bad and getting worse. I won’t let you be a victim. The next few months will be hard because I’m going to expect you to work hard, okay? I know you’re tough, tougher than you probably think. I know you can make it through this.”
His words were bouncing around my mind in one big jumbled mess. What the hell was he talking about? Was I supposed to turn into some nut-job backwoodsman or something? He was very serious, which was way out of character for him, so I knew this wasn’t something I could just shrug off. But dammit I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to learn how to survive. I just wanted to go home and for everything to be normal again. I didn’t know what to say so I tried to be as honest as possible.
“I’m not sure I really know what you mean but I’ll try, I will.”
That seemed good enough for him. He nodded and we carried the last of our bundles back towards the side of the cabin to add to the pile. Mike joined us and we worked for another hour together. Dad showed us how to use the saw for the bigger logs and said he would show us how to use the axe tomorrow.
Axe? Who was this guy all of a sudden? An image of my dad, bearded and wearing plaid, popped into my head and I couldn’t help but smile. This was going to be strange days ahead. We all trudged into the cabin, cold and tired from the stress of the day. Mom had done an incredible job organizing supplies, of course. Hanging on one of the cabinets was a pencil and sheet of yellow legal paper labeled Inventory. Something we would all get to know well over the remaining winter.
She beamed at us as we entered. “Who’s hungry?”
We all answered in a unanimous affirmation. She had something on the stove in a pot that smelled fantastic. With all the anxiety and stress of just getting here I’d forgotten how hungry I was. Mike and I fought over the bathroom sink to wash up then ran to the table for lunch.
“Everything looks great, Mom,” Mike said as we grabbed bowls off the counter and sat down to eat.
The chairs were rickety and groaned as we took our seats except for my mom’s, of course. She was so graceful and delicate she floated silently into her chair without a squeak. I did not inherit much of the graceful gene and rocked back and forth clumsily as I scooted in, earning an eye roll from Mike. Although my dad told me all the time how much I looked like my mother, I just didn’t see it. My features weren’t as soft and I lacked her charm and poise. I was much more at home playing video games than I was doing anything traditionally girly. I didn’t even have her beautiful hair. Mine was a tired boring brown compared to her stunning auburn and I usually wore it up in a ponytail anyway. Sometimes I wondered if I was even related to her at all.
She smiled at us as we sat down but there was an edge to it. She was super stressed, as we all were but she was keeping her mellow face intact for the moment. We ate the amazing stew she had thrown together and I wondered about the people back home. The ones I knew were still alive anyway. Our neighbors, kids from school, my cousins. What were they doing right now? Were they making plans of their own for an escape? Would I ever see any of them again?
Almost as if she could read my mind, my mom answered with the only thing that could be said at that moment.
“We should be thankful we’re here together. Not everyone has this right now. And we don’t know for how long we’ll have it. But for right now, we should be thankful we’re here.”
Mike didn’t look up from his food but he nodded slightly. He was probably thinking about the same things I was. Except, being super popular, he had a lot more people to worry about than I did. There were entire groups of people who were actively missing him whereas I had one soul in the whole world who would notice I wasn’t answering my texts anymore. Mike’s friends would probably organize an online support group in honor of him. I almost laughed out loud at the thought.
We ate mostly in silence and talked briefly about our day tomorrow. Dad was going to show us how to chop wood without chopping off our legs. Mom was going to take us on a long hike to learn the property and perimeter. Then we all took turns using the pint-sized bathroom to get cleaned up. Mike and I sat on the little couch together in our sweatpants and fuzzy socks and watched Mom fiddle with the radio.
“It’s important we know what’s going on in the world so we know what our next move is. With no TV here the radio is our connection for now.”
“Tell me again why there’s not a TV here?” I asked. “I mean we’re in the woods not in another dimension.”
Mom and Dad smiled at each other.
“Well after the old one broke five years ago I guess no one ever bothered to replace it. It was kind of nice not having a TV when you wanted to come relax in the middle of nowhere. It just didn’t occur to us that we’d really need one.”
Mike and I cracked up as we joked back and forth. “Hey Dad, this will be like when you were growing up. Before TV was invented, right?”
He puffed an offended whoosh of air out his mouth and made a goofy face at me. Then proceeded to do his old-man routine complete with hunched back and crackling voice. We all giggled in spite of how embarrassing he was. I swear, the man could have been a stand-up comedian in another life.
That was the last moment I can remember feeling safe and whole. The last time I felt like there was a simple solution somewhere just out of reach. Sitting with my family in front of a fire, my big brother next to me giving me his sweet reassuring grin, snow covering the ground outside as if we could’ve been on Christmas vacation. The feeling was brief and fleeting, but I still remember it. Sometimes if I close my eyes it feels real enough that I could I reach out and grasp it from the abyss of time and sit in it forever.
About one minute later our lives took a drastic plunge into an inescapable darkness. Our futures, my future, would be forever changed.