New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.
If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.
Andrea Fletcher fled into the mountains to escape the sickness. She didn’t expect to find others here, not in early January. Why hadn’t she abandoned that sick boy as soon as she saw him? Did they think he would live? Why were they trying to get out of the wilderness she was so desperate to get into? How much she should tell them?
Little Cooper, stumbling about cooking their dinner and rattling on with a motormouth that wouldn’t quit, looked too fragile to handle the news of the outside world. Thin, wiry, with those bright blue eyes sparkling under that tousled blond hair, he reminded her of boys from her own middle school days. Boys she didn’t like.
Just shy of her 13th birthday, she walked onto the football field, determined to try out for the team, and listened to boys like Cooper laugh. Girls don’t play football, they howled. That’s a boys game.
They didn’t laugh when she slammed them into lockers or stuffed them into trash cans in the weeks to come. If they had let her play, she would have drilled them into the grass of the field.
The coaches directed her to girls basketball and softball. Not as fun as crushing the boys into the turf, but she still held the record for most fouls in a season of basketball and ejections in a middle school softball career. She believed in contact even in a non-contact sport.
Travis might be older, but he was sitting inside the shelter bawling his eyes out while his best friend was dying. He didn’t look like he could handle knowing what was happening in the wider world.
With his jet black hair, moody brown eyes, and soccer player physique, he resembled the pretty boys who ignored her in high school. Future frat boys dating the cheerleaders and too good for a girl like her. She had plenty of boyfriends, but they were rougher around the edges than a Boy Scout like Travis.
On her 16th birthday, she skipped school and hung out with one. He hadn’t technically dropped out, yet, but he wasn’t making it to school very much either. They smoked weed and made out, both favorite activities of his though she preferred his grass over his ass. His fumbling was more of a turn-off than a turn-on, yet another boy she tolerated while she wondered why she didn’t care for boys as much as her friends.
The live scenes on TV of blue skies and planes flying into towers put a stop to that day’s games. When he tried to get her to turn off the TV and climb back into his bed, she slapped him and turned the volume up. He sulked and begged, while she shushed him.
While staring at the TV, she knew she wanted revenge for those heinous acts. Animals that flew innocent people into towers full of more innocent people deserved to die and she was happy to oblige. The military, however, made her wait two more years.
By then, she had a new boyfriend, though he wasn’t much different from the others. At least he was quick about physical things. And he was as gung-ho about kicking ass as she was, so they enlisted together.
The Army refused to allow Andrea into the infantry. They offered her clerical roles and kitchen work, but she badgered them until they directed her to the Military Police. At first, the thought of not seeing combat like her boyfriend frustrated her. That didn’t change when she received word an IED exploded and killed him on a combat patrol just a few weeks after being in country. Apparently, he was quick about dying, too.
Turns out, though, that she saw more conflict than he ever did. The MPs cleared road routes for the supply teams, which had them routinely encountering IEDs and bad guys. She thrived on the adrenaline rush, always volunteering for as dangerous of assignments as the Army would allow.
By the time she was Meagan’s age, she was exchanging her Army uniform for a police uniform. She couldn’t imagine the younger woman chasing a perp through a public housing project or wrestling a domestic abuser to the ground, much less holding her ground in some unforgiving desert as a suicide bomber approached. To Andrea, Meagan seemed as immature and inexperienced as Travis and Cooper.
The police did not work quite the same way as the MPs. Catch a guy planting IEDs and he was on his way to count the virgins in heaven. But the police believed in due process and courts and bureaucracy. Her Sergeant wrote her up and warned her four times for aggressiveness before she saw Tammy that final time.
Like previous visits, Tammy sat in her dingy kitchen with a cigarette dangling from her hand, a baby with an ill-fitting diaper balanced in her lap. She denied that Bobby, the drunken blob being questioned by another officer, had ever hit her. She loved him and he loved her, she swore. Even if neither of them were sure if he was the daddy.
Not that the love explained the black eye. Or the dried blood under her broken nose. Or the missing teeth. Or the bruises around her neck. But good old drunken Bobby never raised a hand to her, she swore.
Despite Tammy’s denials, Andrea arrested Bobby. For the fifth time. Frustrated at Bobby and the courts and Tammy and a sergeant warning her to watch her temper, Andrea may not have been as careful with the stumbling drunk as she should have been. He tripped and fell, smashing his face into the side of her patrol car. Three times.
And, for that, they took her badge.
A few months later, a fellow officer stopped by the McDonald’s that had hired her. As he placed his order, and received his law enforcement discount, he leaned forward and asked if she had heard they arrested Bobby again. And, this time, it looked like he was going away for a while. Tammy couldn’t deny the beatings any more from a pauper’s grave. His lawyer was trying to get the charges reduced to manslaughter, claiming her death was accidental.
The officer also slipped her the name and phone number of the head of security for the local hospital, which led to her last job – and her soulmate.
One Friday night shortly after starting work for the hospital, the Emergency Room staff called Andrea to deal with yet another meth-head freaking out. When she entered the room, the druggie was threatening a nurse. Andrea tackled and cuffed him. The nurse was uninjured, but offered to buy dinner in the cafeteria as a thank you. They talked and laughed until a beeper called the nurse back to the ER.
Marissa was everything Andrea wasn’t. Sophisticated. Smart. Calm. Beautiful. But, for some reason Andrea would never understand, Marissa thought Andrea was all those things, too. And Marissa gave her feelings and desires that no boy had ever done.
They arranged their shifts together. Ate meals in the cafeteria together. Rented an apartment together just a mile away from the hospital. For the first time in her life, Andrea was happy. Truly, completely happy. Bliss.
The number of flu cases in the ER rose several weeks ago. No one thought much about it since the flu season always began as the days shortened and the weather grew colder. And the high numbers of patients just led the medical teams to blame a poorly planned vaccine that missed the predominant flu viruses that year – a not uncommon occurrence.
Even the first deaths shocked no one. They were a big enough hospital to see flu deaths every year, just part of the 30,000 deaths to the virus each year.
As the numbers of sick and dead grew, preventive efforts escalated. The hospital implemented visitor restrictions, limiting only immediate family in patient rooms. Andrea helped enforce those rules, much as she had in prior flu seasons.
TV stations and newspapers reported that the flu season had begun and seemed to be stronger than normal. A public bored by the hype of the news cycle ignored the reports and groused about having to cover for sick coworkers.
Absences at the hospital grew as doctors and nurses, technicians and janitorial staff, cafeteria workers and administrators succumbed to the bug. The morgue overflowed and annexed extra rooms in the basement to store bodies pending shipment to funeral homes.
The media, bored with the flu story, focused on the latest Hollywood star caught on a compromising video with a rising star of politics. A blogger highlighting the spread of illnesses was dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.
Like most of the public, Andrea’s concern didn’t escalate until the night Marissa came home coughing. The hospital staff worked twelve-hour shifts to cover for sick personnel. Marissa needed a good night’s sleep before her shift the next day.
By the next morning, Andrea knew Marissa couldn’t handle any shift. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t hold down any food.
Scared and desperate, Andrea called in sick for both of them. No one questioned the request and wished her a speedy recovery, urging them to stay in their apartment until fully recovered, preventing further contamination.
No one ever called to follow up.
On the fourth day, Marissa was wheezing and coughing up blood. Andrea called 911 for an ambulance, but no one answered the call. At first, a recording announced that her call was important and would be taken in the order it was received.
Later, she couldn’t even reach the recording and heard only ring after ring. In her last calls, the phone simply clicked and went silent.
By the fifth morning, Marissa was fading. Andrea scooped her up in her arms and held her in the bed, singing a lullaby. At some point, Marissa took her last breath. Andrea held her and wept for hours.
She waited for the sickness to come take her, prayed for it. She sat for days in the darkened apartment, but the flu didn’t want her.
Unable to call for an ambulance and unsure what to do with Marissa’s body, Andrea wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to the pickup truck they shared.
The apartment complex was eerily quiet. No kids were running around or riding their bikes. No cars came or went. The only movement she saw was a blind cracked open in Apartment 1637, but when she looked, the blind snapped shut.
The trip to the hospital was quick with little traffic on the road, but Humvees blocked the entrances. Soldiers stood behind the vehicles, surgical masks on their faces and weapons in their hands, fear and worry etched on their faces.
She approached the first set of Humvees and identified herself as a former MP. A private, leveling his weapon, ordered her to halt. She explained that she was an employee of the hospital. At first, he was excited, but then disappointed to discover she was not medical staff. Security guard? Nope, they didn’t need her. Turn around and go home. Essential personnel only.
She asked about Marissa. What was she to do with a body? His expression hardened and he directed her to a back entrance. A makeshift morgue, he promised.
She circled the hospital and approached the back entrance, blocked much like the front, but the MPs directed her to a waiting line of cars inching toward a large military tent. People shrouded in hazmat suits scurried about. Refrigerated trucks sat at the edge of the tent. Stacked body bags towered to the top of the trailers. Occupied body bags.
The horror settled into Andrea’s bones as she calculated how many body bags fit in a trailer. She turned her truck and drove away. Marissa was not going inside a trailer and hauled off to some mass grave. Not like she had seen in the desert overseas. Discarded like so much garbage. Not her Marissa.
Nothing was left for her in town. No reason to return to the apartment. She headed to Interstate 40. Traffic was light and she made good time east toward the mountains on the horizon. The one place she had always felt human, disappearing into the towering trees.
Only to discover these people trying to escape.
No, she wouldn’t tell this fragile crew details. She wouldn’t tell them about pulling down a fire road and digging a grave deep in the forest. She wouldn’t describe how she had sat beside that grave, hand on the mound, saying goodbye to Marissa. She wouldn’t describe contemplating the gun she held in her hand and the peace it might bring.
She would tell them only about the number of sick and dying. About her decision to escape into the mountains and wait it out.
They would believe her and stay with her. Or they would go see for themselves. The choice was theirs. Either way, she was staying.
She told her tale. At least, the parts she was willing to tell.
And they listened in horror.