Young adult pandemic novel
In the book of Exodus, Moses carries out God's will to inflict ten plagues on the land of Egypt. Of these scourges, one stood out among all the others, the slaying of the first born, the last plague.
I held my bat high over my shoulder and squinted at the kid staring me down from 40 feet away. I pushed a wisp of straight black hair that grew perpendicular to my scalp, a trait I'd inherited from my maternal grandmother in Quanzhou, out of the way as I prepared for the first pitch. A nasty changeup came in over the outside corner of the plate. The ball was in the catcher's mitt before I even finished my swing. Strike one. I was 13, the oldest member of the Brookville Owls, a little league team that'd won the district tournament the year before I'd joined them. My father had explained to me that there was no shame in playing baseball with kids so young they had to choke up three inches on the bat on every trip to the plate. It took some time, but I'd finally internalized this wisdom. Slowly my self-consciousness about being the only member of the team allowed admittance to movies with "adult situations" began to subside. I just wished I had a better on-base percentage than even one of them.
Another pitch--a hanging curveball. "Strike two!" the umpire called.
"Come on, you can do it, Eli!" shouted my grandfather Sid Ogden, his untidy grey hair floating in the wind as he yelled out from the stands. He wore a brown sweater that kept him warm in the early May breeze. This was the first Owls game he'd been to all season. Grandpa Sid said he didn't think he needed to put on an outer covering so late in the spring. Andrew Ogden, my dad, who sat next to him cheering me on too, had convinced him otherwise. My dad was a virologist. He was always lecturing me about spring colds, and he wore a sweater and a fleece jacket, even though the temperature that day hadn't dropped below 60 degrees.
My dad had recognized early on that I wasn't gonna' be a baseball star. But since my only achievements since early childhood had been spelling bee prizes and science fair awards, he felt, along with my mom, that athletics would help round me out.
The pitcher wound up again. As the ball flew from his hands, I panicked, and swung at a wide breaking ball the catcher had to lunge at to secure. "Strike three," the umpire called.
"Damn, he struck out!" Grandpa Sid exclaimed to my father shaking his head.
"No, they get four strikes now, Dad."
"Yup, the league thinks it'll improve their self-esteem."
My grandpa contemplated such a change in the by-laws of America's pastime. What nonsense, he thought to himself. In spite of his attitude towards this kind of coddling, he momentarily forgave any rule amendment that still gave his grandson life.
I squatted down lower for the fourth delivery. I looked into the pitcher's eyes again. His blond hair, imposing height, and rugged look told me that this was a kid who'd probably never suffered an ounce of ballfield humiliation in his whole life. I took a long breath. Three straight swings and three straight misses. The law of probability said that I was bound to make contact on the next pitch.
"Strike four," the umpire called. "You're out!"
I ambled away from the plate, the bat draped over my shoulder. My teammates avoided looking at me as I entered the dugout, except the youngest ones. These kids stared at the me with a kind of bemused glee. The fact that they were better players than someone two years older than them gave them a real ego boost.
"You'll get 'em next time," said my dad as he and my grandpa walked me to the car after the game.
"Hey, at least I got to see my grandson play ball," my grandpa said mussing my hair. "You had that walk. That takes a good eye."
"Not really," I responded. "I just calculated the pitches' trajectories based on the wind direction. That and I crouched down really low."
"All part of the game's skill," my grandpa replied. "You think Tiger Woods would've gotten so good at golf without that same kind of intuition?"
The next day, I walked into a Worwick High School chemistry class and took a seat. Even though I was a freshman, I'd been put into the course after placing out of first year biology. I raised my chin to my friend Adrian Thomas, a sophomore, who sat two seats away. He pulled buds from ears that'd been laid bare by his outer fade haircut. He then greeted me with his own head nod.
On the board was an osmosis reaction that the other students were already copying down. I took out a notebook and began to do the same. Finally, our teacher, Ms. Williams, stood up from her desk. "Okay, who can explain how this chemical process works?"
My hand was the first one up, as always.
"Molecules of a solvent pass through a semipermeable cell wall from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one, and this equalizes the density of solution on each side of the membrane."
"Very good, Eli," Ms. Williams said before launching into the day's lesson.
At the end of the period, the bell rang announcing the close of the school day.
"Okay, folks," said Ms. Williams, "don't forget. Midterm Friday."
Logan Burris, the captain of the junior varsity baseball squad and his friend Eric Halton, both wearing their team jackets, walked up to me as I collected my things.
"Hey, Joe DiMaggio, saw you playing at my kid brother's little league game."
My stomach suddenly tightened. So far, the only public humiliation I'd faced as an Owl was the giggles of a few of my teammates' sisters from the stands. Now here was someone who could expose me to the entire Worwick student body.
Adrian seemed to have overheard Logan's statement, an opening he could tell was the prelude to an insult. Adrian played on the school baseball team along with Logan and his friend. He'd recently partnered with me for that year's Westinghouse Science Competition. We'd been developing a neutrigenomics project together. Adrian had started to feel a little jazzed about the endeavor--unusual given his general attitude towards academic extracurriculars. However, he still didn't enjoy the idea of his connection with members of the Science Club becoming common knowledge among the entire school community, especially his baseball teammates.
Adrian had been about to join me before I was accosted by Logan and his buddy. The two of us almost always walked to the organization meetings after school on Thursdays together. However, today he held back, intentionally avoiding any involvement in my beef with Logan.
"Would five strikes be enough for you?" the baseball team captain continued.
Adrian tried to avoid facing me in the wake of this burn. As I looked around for him, he pretended to be occupied with searching through his backpack for an essential item. Seeing my friend distracted and hoping to get away from the two sophomores as quickly as possible, I grabbed my things and headed towards the door. Feeling really guilty, Adrian watched as I slinked out of the classroom with Logan and Eric laughing as they trailed behind me.
When I walked into the Science Club meeting room ten minutes later, I saw, among the other members of the group, Lindsay Anderson. She was a sophomore with dark brown hair and a demeanor that reminded me of Gail Bromberg, a young teacher I'd crushed on from September to June of my fifth-grade year. The way Lindsay spoke reminded me of the way Ms. Bromberg would lecture her class of 10-year-olds about the solar system and properties of matter. When Lindsay explained the facets of an aviary phylum, she gave off this scientific passion that just drove me wild. "That was fire," I so wanted to tell her after the meeting. But I didn't have the guts to even speak to her, much less gush over her poster session. I might've been in the same year as some of the other clubbies, but after skipping the eighth grade, all of my friends thought of yours truly like a little brother. I knew Lindsay would feel the same.
There among the other members of the group also sat my friend Olivia Sanchez. I knew Olivia from the sophomore math section I'd also placed into. As a high school newbie her previous year, Olivia was the first Hispanic student ever to win the Westinghouse prize solo at Worwick. She owned Cliodynamics. She actually intimidated a lot of her instructors. When they'd lecture the class's other brain-dead kids on mammalogy and etymology, she'd be one of the only students listening. It was only out of politeness though. She mastered everything they were regurgitating years before. At least she still wore braces--the one reminder to her teachers that she really had once been a child.
Olivia sat at a long black desk in the classroom talking with her BFF Maddy Rehnquist. Maddy's father and mother were both professors at the local college. Though her brain was wired for science, her eye was set on fashion. She'd never dream of missing a sale at Gucci or Tom Ford. Her hair was long and fringed at the ends, and she wore a Prada purse, a gift from her grandmother. Her mom humored her own mother, who loved fueling Maddy's obsession with clothing and apparel--aspects of their child both her parents avoided encouraging at all costs.
As I greeted the two girls, Olivia pushed down a lock of my hair that stood out awkwardly from the rest. Whenever I'd forget my actual age, Olivia's maternal impulses were all the reminder I needed that I was still a preemie. I glanced around, hoping that no one, especially Lindsay, had noticed Olivia's unconscious gesture.
A few moments later, Adrian entered the room. He stood ten feet away from me and the two girls. He steeled himself before approaching us, Maddy in particular. He could only take so much of this particular classmate at a time. While he certainly thought she'd glo'd up since her ugly-duckling freshman year, he found himself irritated by the fact that she felt, almost without fail, that every top she wore had to match her shoes. What to other kids might be considered en fleek, Adrian only saw as spoiled.
"So, after soloing, you're giving a partner a chance to share in some Westinghouse glory?" I queried Olivia.
"Who says she was the one who wanted to work with me?" Olivia asked in response.
"Oh, don't tell me Ms. Forever 21 is gonna' be the real brains here," Adrian said finally now walking over to where we sat.
Maddy exhaled slightly as he joined us. To the young lady Adrian wasn't so bad looking himself. However, the problem for her was that he knew it. She also resented the fact that the only times he'd acknowledge other "clubbies" were occasions when he was far from his baseball teammates' critical eyes.
"Better be careful," she said in response to Adrian's comment about her and Olivia's project. "Word gets around you're splitting your time now between the baseball team and the nerd squad, you might find yourself in left out-ville." Adrian said nothing in reply to this dig. He was above acknowledging such pettiness, he told himself--that plus what could he say in response that wouldn't be an outright lie?
Meanwhile in Brazil's capital city Brasilia, a group of tourists on safari were taking in the lush flora of the Amazon Rainforest. The travelers passed a part of the jungle that'd recently been torched by farmers. The trees' blackened limbs and the charred grass gave the entire area the feel of a Bryan De Palma movie setting. The tour leader stopped the bus right in the middle of the plot of scorched earth. Why? Though these burned-out swathes of forest wasteland were not what the safari brochures had advertised, the guide felt the environmental destruction was something the vacationers should witness. For one, the safari leader knew the tour participants would be curious after all the sob stories about the devastation the media'd blitzed the airwaves with. The second reason? This was a platform to encourage the outrage at what was being done to his country's natural habitat.
With the vehicle at a standstill, the guide got up out of the driver's seat and turned to the sojourners behind him. "As you can see, the deforestation has destroyed this entire area of the jungle."
The tourists all looked around at the remnants of what had remained a pristine section of the rainforest for hundreds of years. One woman shook her head in absolute disgust. Another member of the group, a naturalist who ran a conversation website, took a set of pictures for his blog.
As the tourists surveyed the devastation, a male albino chimpanzee came bounding between the charred tree stumps towards the bus. Members of the group pointed at the unusual creature in awe.
The monkey jumped up on the railing of the vehicle right in front of Lewis Sutton, a 46-year-old hospital administrator from the United States, who wore a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts. His goal had been to snag an action photo of himself in the company of some of the South American wildlife. On an earlier stop on which the tourists had all disembarked for a short walking expedition, the group had come upon some rhinoceroses. Mr. Sutton tip-toed towards the animals, but one of the pachyderms started charging. The safari participant fell to the ground as he tripped over a loose branch in an attempt to avoid the quickly approaching rhino. This immediately ended the photo op.
Here was his chance,Lewis thought to himself. He turned to his wife Victoria, a woman a few years younger than him, who wore a white cholo shirt she'd picked up at a local outfitter. He handed her their digital camera and reached into the bag containing their pre-packed lunches. Mr. Sutton pulled out a banana and began to peel it. He held up the fruit for the visitor as he removed the skin. He was confident that the offer of an afternoon snack would yoke the creature in. The chimp eyed the delicious looking fruit, the first one he'd seen after a fire two days earlier had destroyed the remainder of his habitat. Unfortunately, the message behind Mr. Sutton's pantomime was lost in translation.
"No, don't do that," the guide cautioned Mr. Sutton. "He won't understand. He'll think you're planning to eat it yourself." Unfortunately, the trip leader's warning had come an essential second too late.
The monkey'd already strategized how to grab the prize from the tourist who mocked his hunger with a show of his own feast. The chimp had been waiting for the vacationer to take his eyes off of him. Mr. Sutton was about to stop and hand the banana to the simian half-peeled. But just before he did, his wife provided the distraction the monkey'd been looking for. She asked her husband whether or not he'd remembered to switch off the camera's flash. The moment Mr. Sutton's head was turned, the chimp sprung at the unsuspecting tourist. He grabbed hold of Lewis' forearm just above the wrist and dug his teeth in full-force.
"Son of a bitch!" Mr. Sutton screamed grabbing his arm in pain as he dropped the banana onto the floor of the vehicle.
The chimp leapt down off the railing and snatched the prize from under Mr. Sutton's feet. He then jumped back up onto the side of the bus and off the vehicle cradling his stolen haul.
The guide rushed over and examined Mr. Sutton's arm. "Oh, that's a nasty one. Let's take care of it." He returned to the driver's seat and pulled down a first aid kit stored just above the visor. Mr. Sutton wasn't the first dumbass he'd led through the jungle. The leader was just happy this incident didn't require hospitalization. The guide removed some gauze and medical tape from the plastic container. He ripped the adhesive with his teeth and started bandaging the wound. "That'll give you a nice souvenir to take back home with you."
Once the leader had attended to the bite, Mrs. Sutton handed her husband back the camera. After glancing at the photo she'd snapped, Lewis grimaced, partly from another bolt of pain that suddenly shot through his lower arm, but also from the fact that the only photo his wife had taken that day was of him cursing out a chimpanzee. Brazilian wildlife 2, Mr. Sutton 0.
Two days later, as Lewis and Victoria sat on the plane back to the U.S., Mr. Sutton put his hand up to his face.
"You feeling alright?" his wife asked.
"You sure?" Victoria inquired as she put her hand on her husband's forehead. "You feel hot."
"We've been living in 90 plus degrees for the past week. Of course, I'm hot."
As the couple talked, Juan Cabrero, a Spanish national sat on the other side of Lewis reading a SkyMall catalog. Juan had been in Brasilia on business. Overhearing the conversation of the man and woman next to him, he suddenly grew concerned about how close he was to a passenger displaying signs of illness. Juan had just gotten over being sick recently and hated the idea of having to start downing the cough medicine and pain killers again. He thought about ringing the call bell and asking the stewardess to reseat him in another part of the plane. Then he remembered his breakfast that morning--a large bowl of fruit and a tall glass of orange juice. He'd be fine, he thought to himself.
Later that day, Mr. Sutton and his wife pulled into their driveway as they arrived back home from the airport. After climbing out of the car, Lewis walked around to the rear of the vehicle and began taking suitcases out of the trunk. As he did so, he handed Victoria a mesh sack of mangos they'd brought back from Brazil with them.
That evening, Mr. Sutton walked into his bathroom holding his neck. He looked in the medicine cabinet. "Honey, do we have any Vitamin C?"
Moments later, Victoria entered the bathroom wearing a robe. "No sorry, hon," she said. "Still feeling sick?" she then asked her husband as she dried her hair.
"There's that whole bag of mangos we bought sitting in the fridge. One's just as good as a tablet."
Lewis nodded his head. Mangos--that was what he needed.
Over at the Sanchez' house, Olivia walked into her family's living room where her brother Benjamin sat in his pajamas playing a first-person shooter game.
"How much longer are you gonna' be?" she asked him from behind the couch.
This had become a weekly routine between the pair ever since Benjamin's girlfriend had kicked him out and sent him back home to live with his parents.
Olivia offered a drawn-out exhale to demonstrate her mounting frustration with the blob that occupied her family's sofa every day. "Shouldn't you be looking for an apartment?"
"Shouldn't you be upstairs tweeting about your latest bra size?"
"Liv, someday I'll go to business school and start my own Fortune 500 company. But right now, delivering food doesn't net me enough to even think about living on my own. So, rather than be a financial burden on Mom and Dad, I live here."
"So, you can be a burden on all of us."
"If I moved out, who would drive you to ballet?"
"First of all, I just got my learner's permit and second of all, I never considered your chauffeuring services enough reason to have to share a television with you."
"It's primogeniture, Liv. The right of the first-born son to unlimited TV use."
At this Olivia just rolled her eyes before returning to her room.
That evening back at my house, my older sister Sara and I participated in a similar exchange of familial love. My sister was 25 and an incredibly successful software professional at an IT consulting firm. However, she too, like Olivia's brother and many other American 20-somethings enjoyed rent-free living at home.
Sara walked into the kitchen wearing a silver party dress. "I'm home!" she shouted not yet seeing me, as I took a soda out of the refrigerator.
I closed the door and looked at my watch. "And before midnight. First time I think since your third year of college." I was somewhat bitter about my sister's laissez-faire attitude towards the hour she returned home from her evening ragers. In her teen years, Sara had also been somewhat cavalier about the time when she came home at night. My parents' concern over giving me free reign to follow in my renegade sister's footsteps led them to hit me with a strict curfew.
Sara could sense the resentment in my voice. "Are you still bitter about the whole curfew thing?"
"Bitter? Nah, if I didn't have to be home by eight o'clock every night, I'd miss reruns of The Big Bang Theory."
"What's the oldest sibling for if not to ruin everything for the rest of the tribe?"
"That's supposed to be a joke, right?" I asked.
"Lighten up. At least Mom and Dad trust you enough to let you attend dances by yourself. That boo of yours in your science club you go on and on about. Imagine having Dad measuring the distance between you and her on the floor."
There was little I could say to this. Even if I was ever was lucky enough to share a dance with Lindsay, my biggest concern wouldn't be my father's overprotective chaperoning. It would more likely revolve around the three-inch height difference (give or take depending on her heels) between me and my date.
The next evening, Mr. Sutton and his wife sat in a Brookville eatery close to where we lived, with Burt and Wendy Roberts. The Suttons had posted photos from their trip, but their friends still wanted to hear about the experience in real time.
"Amazing pics, but I didn't see any from the safari," Burt said to the couple after the waiter had taken their order. "Where were all the leopards?"
"Well, unfortunately Lewis got up close and personal with some Brazilian wildlife at one of our stops," Victoria replied. "My 'intrepid' photographer was out of commission for the last two days of the trip."
"What happened?" Wendy asked.
"A bit of a run-in with a chimp. Nasty little fucker." Lewis held up his right arm. "He left me this."
"That looks bad," she said.
"The bite's nothing... the old ego took the real beating."
At this point his wife jumped in to clarify her spouse's statement for their two companions. "Lewis was determined to get a selfie with him taming the wildlife down there."
"Sucker punched by a monkey!" Lewis said getting laughs from all three of his tablemates. He began chuckling along with them until his chortle changed into a drawn-out cough.
Burt glanced at his friend. "It looks like you might've brought back more than an injury."
"It's just jet lag," wheezed Mr. Sutton.
At the next table, a patron rubbed her eyes after her contact lens had caused an irritation in her corona. In doing so, she sent the infected microbes from Lewis' saliva straight into her bloodstream. This invitation, in addition to free passage into her lungs, was an unusual welcome for a germ that had lain dormant in the jungle for over 50 years.
One morning, I was watching CNN in my family's living room. A male announcer in his 50s, with a lot of grey hair from all the shit he'd seen reporting for 25 years, gave a broadcast of the day's news.
"This week, Jews and Palestinians have been involved in some of the worst fighting in Israel in over 20 years. In other news, more hate crimes in Germany as neo-Nazis set fire to another synagogue."
Having been hooked on current events since the first time I'd picked up a newspaper, I knew that this recent rash of violence was unusual. Something had really changed, and I didn't understand why everyone seemed to be throwing down at other groups all the time now. As I was watching TV, my mother, Rebecca Ogden, who wore a floral scarf kimono jacket and dark jeans, walked in. My mom was an attorney at a downtown legal firm. She'd married my father right out of law school. They had met at a party that one of my dad's Chinese med school colleagues had thrown. As the products of a mixed marriage, we her children had been sheltered from a lot of the impulses for in-fighting that had taken place between groups throughout the course of history. She'd hoped for both our sakes that graffiti swastikas were just a passing social phase.
"Mom, why does everybody hate each other these days?" I asked.
"Do remember the way you and Sara fought when we spent a week up in that cabin?"
"Well, the internet, immigration, the world's a smaller place today than it once was. That takes some getting used to."
I thought about what my mom said. While I hated to admit it, her explanation felt legit.
Over at Olivia's house, this kind of hostility was being echoed in a small bout between her mom and dad.
"You said you'd mow the grass today," Maria Sanchez, wearing a nightshirt, said passing her husband in their upstairs hallway for the first time that morning. They'd been avoiding one another as much as possible the previous day. Tensions over minor stuff had caused no end of argument, and the state of their front yard was just one more thing that kept them at each other's throats.
"I said I'd try," Juan, wearing pajamas, responded.
"Our lawn is starting to look like El Salvador. Can't you take any responsibility around here!"
"Aye!" Juan said as he walked away. At times, the arguments became so heated that Olivia had to shut herself into her room with the music turned up nearly all the way to drown out the screaming. In heading downstairs for a late-night snack one evening, she overhead her mother use the "D" word. She stopped mid-stride on her path towards potato chips, returned to her own room and cried.
The next day, Mr. Sutton, dressed in a business suit, sat eating lunch with my father. My dad wore his usual lab coat. As a hospital administrator at the same clinic where my father practiced, Lewis often hung out with the staff--and received medical advice in the process. As the two of them talked, Mr. Sutton had to put down his turkey sandwich for a sneeze. He then wiped his reddened nose.
"Not lookin' so hot there, Lou," my dad said.
"Yeah, it's this cold I picked up in South America. Been wearing me out."
"You sure you shouldn't take a couple of days off?"
"Maybe I'll do that."
That afternoon, Olivia and I walked door to door in our neighborhood collecting signatures for a gun control petition. So far, the only John Hancock we'd gotten was from Mrs. Porter, an 83-year-old woman. She scribbled her name in chicken scratch not because she believed in gun control but because I'd had helped shovel snow off her driveway the previous winter. Our numbers still didn't discourage either Olivia or me.
Olivia held up the petition as Merle Farnsworth, a man in his late-thirties wearing a wife-beater, opened the door.
"Hi, we're trying to get signatures for a petition to ask Congress to pass more gun restrictions," my friend explained to our neighbor.
Merle looked at us for a few moments before offering his response to Olivia's announcement. "You know what the problem with you kids today is. You have everything handed to you. You gotta' go and invent things to bitch about."
I had anticipated that this was the kind of response we'd get. I thought out exactly what I would say to the men and women who didn't share our opinion about military-grade weapons. "But gun violence kills more than--," I began before Merle slammed the door in me and my companion's face.
Our next house was that of Ron Jenkins, a widower we knew personally, who'd lost his wife to a drug overdose some two years prior. The 43-year-old dude came to the door at my knock wearing a mustache and a Nascar T-shirt.
"We're collecting signatures for a gun law petition."
Mr. Jenkins was even less down with gun legislation than the friendly neighbor who'd just slammed the door in our face. "Ain't no one in Washington gonna' take away my right to protect what's mine," he told me.
"But Mr. Jenkins, the likelihood of someone robbing your home is much lower than the chance that people our age will be killed in a mass shooting."
To this, Ron had his own response. "Can I help it if some nut job whose mommy never loved him decides to go and shoot a bunch of bullies?"
I already knew this one would be a tough customer. Nevertheless, before accepting defeat, I decided to give it one more shot. "Mr. Jenkins, all this legislation is attempting to do is limit the use of automatic weapons."
Ron didn't get many visitors. Here was an opportunity, he thought, to teach the two of us a lesson on some of the realities of the world. "Lemme' tell you kids something. This country's goin' ta' hell... these new meds they got gonna' turn everyone into night walkers. And you know who's gonna' be ready when the shit goes down? Yours truly, that's who! There's only one language zombies understand." Ron then reached to his right and picked up an AR-15 he kept leaning against his doorway wall. "And when the freaks come a knockin', I'ma' use Betsy here to do my tahkin'."
Olivia and I said nothing--that is until we were out of firing range. After we'd reached what we considered a safe distance, we decided to give up on our efforts for the time being. Mrs. Porter's signature, as well as five promised John Hancocks from our parents and siblings, might not be enough for a new bill--but they had to be good for something.
That night, Mr. and Mrs. Sutton lay in bed. Lewis had yet to follow up on my dad's advice and head to an expert to get his condition looked at. He coughed constantly as he scrolled through an article on his tablet.
"Sweetheart, you really need to get that cold looked at," said his wife.
"Relax, I'll be fine."
"You said that two days ago, and it's just gotten worse."
"I said I'll be fine!" Mr. Sutton shouted without taking his eyes off his reading material. Mrs. Sutton was stunned. She just stared at her husband in disbelief--wondering who exactly it was she now shared a bed with.
The next afternoon, Adrian sat at his desk at home. He was sifting through a folder of article clippings about a boy's death. He stopped for a minute and looked up as his mind floated back to the incident, captured in all the local papers.
Two years prior, Adrian had been walking his younger brother Deshaun home from school when his sibling told him he wanted to go see some ducks at a pond on the way. The mother duck had just had babies, and Deshaun's class was studying maternal/offspring relationships in school. The water was in a bad area. The boys' mother had warned Deshaun about visiting that part of the hood. Yet after five minutes of arguing, it became clear to Adrian that his brother wasn't going home without seeing these animals. So, against his better judgment, he took his sibling to the pond.
Once they arrived, Deshaun removed a cheap set of binoculars from his backpack. He looked around the area until he located the brood. Deshaun then made his way over to the waterfowl and began taking pictures of them with his cell to bring back to his teacher. After a few minutes, Adrian told his brother it was time to go. He finally got his younger sibling to comply when a bunch of boys circling the pond began to approach them. One of them asked Deshaun if they could use the binoculars. When he refused, another one of the other kids snatched the pair out of his hands. Adrian was bigger than any of the tweens. But they outnumbered him and his brother and from the looks of them, they might not come to a fight empty handed. Adrian decided it was better not to engage with them.
"Dude, it's just some stupid binoculars, let's go!" he said to Deshaun. His brother wasn't having any of it. He rushed at the kid who stole his binoculars. The boy shoved him down and drew a knife.
"You want some of this, shorty?" he asked him in a menacing tone.
Deshaun refused to give in. He didn't think the kid was going to stab him over a cheap set of plastic binoculars. "Give it back!" he continued to yell, as the other child held the stolen item over his head.
He lunged at the pre-teen. The other boy's bluff had been called. He raised his hand to block his face, and the knife caught Deshaun's extended wrist--his radial artery was sliced clean through, and the boy started to bleed out from the wound.
"Oh shit!" the kids all exclaimed in fear. The bully dropped the weapon and the group of tweens darted away from the area.
"Hold it up!" Adrian shouted at his brother. Deshaun raised his arm high above his head. Adrian ripped his shirt and attempted to tie off the wound as best he could. He then took out his phone and dialed 911. An ambulance showed up five minutes later. By this time, Deshaun was almost unconscious. The technicians put him on a gurney and lifted him into the emergency vehicle.
"Can I come?" Adrian asked them.
"Sure," the EMT said.
So, Adrian climbed into the ambulance and watched the paramedics attend to his brother. They shoved an IV into him before the door was even closed and started pumping blood into his arm. The effort, however, was too late, and by the time they arrived at the hospital, Deshaun had already passed.
Adrian put the clipping he was holding back into the folder. He then looked over at the picture of Deshaun sitting on his desk and wiped away the tear that had begun to form in his eye.
A few days later, Mr. Sutton sat in a hospital room as a doctor listened to his lungs. The physician took off his stethoscope.
"Do you remember what kind of monkey it was?"
"It could be some kind of flu strain. We'll keep a close eye on you."
The next week, Olivia and Maddy were attending an environmental demonstration. As they marched beside a gathering of protestors, Olivia held up a banner: "Save our Shores," it said with a picture of a beach strewn with garbage.
Maddy walked alongside her friend. She, however, didn't hold any placard. Her own attention was squarely on her smart phone. She glanced at the time. She'd promised another friend she'd hit the mall with her that afternoon after the protest. When Maddy told her companion that she didn't know when the demonstration would be over, her friend just told her to text her when the beatniks got tired of rabble rousing and "called on their moms to retrieve them in gas-gusling SUVs."
Maddy finally looked up at the demonstrators shouting down the companies they believed were destroying the earth. "You know, who's gonna' listen to us anyway? I mean we're just kids."
Olivia pointed out at a set of high-rises in the distance. A thick layer of smog blanketed the entire skyline of the city.
"Just look at that," Olivia began. "The pollution is so thick you can't even see downtown."
"So?" Maddy asked.
"Well," Olivia continued, "if we don't tell people out there to wake the fuck up, who will?"
Maddy looked at her friend with a sideward glance. "Easy there, Greta."
"FYI," Olivia then said ignoring Maddy's comment, "the 60s freedom riders were students too. And the Parkland High School protestors... none of them were much older than us."
"Yeah, and look what happened there. Nothing!"
Olivia and Maddy had watched the enormous national protest in Washington organized by the students from the tragedy's ground zero on TV. Olivia remembered that there'd been quite a bit of optimism among those kids that the government would finally listen to them and pass some of the legislation that they were clamoring for--or at least pretend to care. Neither, however, had actually happened. Not a single word of law was changed in spite of the efforts of those hundreds of thousands of fiery adolescents.
"Do you remember Les Mis?" Maddy asked her friend. They'd seen the traveling show together.
"Yeah," Olivia responded.
"So, you had the French Revolution where they chopped off Marie Antoinette's head. That was the Sixties. People who created real change. And then in the show you had whatever bullshit the kids were trying to pull... standing behind some broken furniture trying to fight the entire French army. Well, that's who we are. We're the Les Mis. revolution. Kids who think they're gonna' change the world... but all end up dead."
Olivia hated to acknowledge the validity of her friend's point.
Rather than debate the legitimacy of Maddy's pessimism, Olivia took an out. "Hey," she said to her friend. "If there's a Marius for me in this. Count me in every time!"
Maddy laughed. It felt good when Olivia came back to her wavelength.
The next day Mr. Sutton sat in a hospital ward. Following his examination, he was immediately advised to remain at the hospital for further treatment. He occupied himself reading one of the many books he'd downloaded to his Kindle. His wife would be stopping by that afternoon, but he found himself dreading her visit. For some reason, he was in no mood to see her. Thinking back to their exchange, he still couldn't understand what had come over him.
As he pondered his recent hostility towards his spouse, his attending nurse walked in. Abigail Brody was a chipper young physician's assistant with a blond ponytail that stuck out behind her nurse's cap. She was the kind of person who'd water flowers that other people had brought in for patients. Normally Mr. Sutton would enjoy a few minutes of small talk with her in the morning just like he did conversation with staff members in each area of County General. But not now.
That afternoon, Abigail greeted him in her customary fashion. "Here you go," she then said as she handed him a tablet and a glass of water.
Mr. Sutton had begun to feel like he was getting drugs shoved down his throat every five minutes. "I just took that pill!" he shouted at the nurse.
"No, I'm sorry, you didn't, Mr. Sutton," she explained to him.
"Yes, I did!" He then slapped the water out of her hands.
The nurse stepped back in shock before rushing out. She looked around for Lewis' doctor. When she'd found Mr. Sutton's attending physician, she immediately conveyed how weird her patient's behavior had been.
"Thanks, Abigail," the doctor said. "I'll see what's going on."
A few moments later, the physician walked into the room. "Mr. Sutton, I heard you have a concern about your prescription."
"It's making me sick."
"I'm sorry. Nausea is a potential side effect of the medicine. If it gets any worse, we'll consider adjusting the dosage," the doctor said nodding his head.
Meanwhile, in Madrid Spain, Juan Cabrero was heading to his office. His recent expedition to South America for a meeting with the president of his detergent company had been very productive. He was enthusiastic about getting to work that day to report the results of his trip to his supervisor. He felt a sneeze coming on as he walked into the office. He'd been sniffling ever since he'd returned from Brazil. He took a package of paper handkerchiefs out his pocket. Unfortunately, he'd used all the tissues. He suddenly became upset at the fact that his wife had forgotten to buy more. He'd been getting frustrated with a lot of minor inconveniences lately. Time to take his doctor's advice, he thought--no more leaded morning Basqu
As he made his way down the street, another man was just coming out of a cigar shop, where he'd purchased a pack of Cubans. Upon leaving the store, the customer suddenly realized he wasn't sure that he'd picked his favorite brand. He looked into the bag to make sure the cashier had put in the receipt in case he wanted to exchange the item. As he did, he missed seeing Juan walking right towards him. He bumped into the other Spaniard's elbow as the two men passed one another. Juan suddenly grew furious. He stopped walking and turned around immediately. He looked the man straight in the eye for a moment to see what kind of arrogant jerk, oblivious to others around him, happened to get in his way. A cigar smoker, that's who. Well, that douchebag wasn't going to be enjoying any Cubans that evening because his nose would be so swollen he'd need his mouth to breathe. Wham! Juan hit him right in the face. The man went down hard onto the pavement. He lay on the ground propping himself up with one elbow and grabbing his nose with the other as blood began gushing down his chin and onto his collar.
What? No, it was just an accident, Juan thought to himself. Yet, something inside kept stoking the fury that had driven his initial attack. He grabbed the man and started shaking him. Noticing the commotion, other passers-by, including a bold 19-year-old woman, took hold of the angry pedestrian and pulled him away from his victim. Juan continued to shout curses in Spanish at the stunned individual, who pressed his palm to his nose and squinted in utter confusion.
Juan freed himself from the collective grip of the good Samaritans, who'd intervened in the dispute. He decided to continue on his way before someone flagged down a policeman to take him into custody. As he walked, he thought of what he'd just done. Who was that, he asked himself. What could possibly have brought on that behavior, he wondered as he now fled in utter humiliation from the crowd attending to the guy he'd beaten to a pulp.
Back in the United States, people across the nation were becoming ever more concerned about a new form of simian flu that had begun infecting large portions of Spain's population. Stories were coming out of travelers from Europe spreading the disease through air-born transmission. On an ABC news broadcast, Doug Innis conveyed to his audience the developments in the virus' recent proliferation. "Medical experts have detected a rash of cases of a new virus that's infecting citizens in the Ciutat Vella District of Barcelona. They are unsure of exactly where the flu originated but they're currently conducting contact tracing."
At 12:30 pm on a Monday afternoon, Olivia, Maddy, Adrian and I sat in our school cafeteria. We didn't often eat lunch together, but the science fair was coming up soon and we needed a little extra powwow time. While less prejudicial than Adrian's jock crowd, some of Maddy's friends also expressed irritation when her lunchtime tablemates included "'Juana' of Arc and the other science dweebs."
One of the topics in our lunchtime convo was the rumor that had been spreading around Worwick High School. Our classmate Jeremy Sutton's dad was believed to have been infected with the simian flu.
"So, did you hear about Jeremy's father?" Adrian asked us between spoonfuls of mixed vegetables.
"No, what?" Olivia queried.
"They think he's got that virus."
"You mean the one from Spain?" Maddy then asked.
My mind immediately leapt to the diet of disease thrillers I'd grown up on, Outbreak, The Hot Zone, Contagion. A reptilian excitement had been brewing in my 13-year-old mind that, "Whoa, this shit is real... I know someone whose dad is infected!" Still, I'd kept everything related to the epidemic to myself thus far. I didn't want to appear to my older friends like the kind of teen who gets his rocks off watching zombie porn.
Maddy was not particularly concerned with the developments. "Oh no," she said with exaggerated fear. "It's gonna' be just like one of those movies! People are gonna' start walking around in Hazmat suits and the National Guard's gonna' come rolling down Main Street in tanks."
"Come on, this is serious!" Olivia said.
Maddy took a sip of her Capri Sun. "Oh, would you lighten up."
"Hey before you get too cocky," Adrian interjected, "just think of what a face mask would do to your lipstick."
"Very funny!" Maddy said.
Suddenly a thought occurred to Olivia. She'd heard me discussing my dad's work once and that he was coordinating with Mr. Sutton on research that his clinic was doing.
"Hey Eli, doesn't your father work with Mr. Sutton?"
This was another reason I hadn't replied to Adrian's statement. I couldn't help but think about what might happen if my dad had had contact with Jeremy's father. Would he get it? Would he start coughing up blood like some of the victims until internal hemorrhaging shot his digestive system to shit.
"Yeah, uh, Mr. Sutton's a VP at the hospital my dad works at."
"Aww, dude, don't worry about it," Adrian said detecting the concern my voice. "Hospitals got like 700 people who work there. Your father has as much chance of getting it as being hit by a car walking down the street."
The next day, my father sat in a science lab at the hospital. He took a droplet from a petri dish and put it onto a slide. He then looked at it under a microscope. He studied the patterns in cell mitosis for a number of minutes before finally picking up his mobile phone.
"Hello," Ed Josling, my dad's 60-year-old, greying colleague wearing a beard and a three-buttoned sweater, said picking up his own cell. The two of them had done a great deal of work together on the swine flu as well SARS. This was something totally different. My father knew Ed was the first person he should notify about his discovery.
"Ed, it's Andy," my dad said to his colleague. "Look, this flu is going straight for the amygdeloid nucleus."
"That'd certainly explain some of our patients' behavior," Ed replied, the highway noise from the other cars along the road he was on drowning out parts of his statement. "We've been getting stories about people biting their doctors heads off."
"That's exactly what happened with Lewis. Mathew Earnst told me that he started going nuts. Swatted away his prescription and started screaming at his nurse that he'd already taken his dose."
"Hmmm," Ed remarked. "Hopefully, it doesn't get any worse."
On an MSNBC broadcast, Jill Peterson, a female news anchor who'd covered the flu since Mr. Sutton's diagnosis, was interviewing Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
"Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Gupta."
"Glad to be here," the world renowned physician said.
"So, this virus, which has now broken out in 15 countries, seems to be acting differently than a lot of contagions we've seen," Ms. Peterson said. "Can you tell our viewers a little more about that."
"Sure, Jill. This particular strain of simian flu has some unusual characteristics in that it produces very aggressive tendencies in its hosts."
"I'm sure that's very concerning for a number of our audience members. And who would you say is most at risk of getting this disease?"
"Well, so far we've found that younger adults from age 23 to around 30 are most susceptible to the illness."
"And why is this group more vulnerable than middle aged men and women, or say the elderly?"
"Well, strangely enough, it takes longer for the metabolisms of older adults to process the virus. So, while they can get the disease, they don't appear as susceptible to this particular flu strain as our younger generation."
"And what about kids?
"Surprisingly, children and adolescents seem almost completely immune. We haven't seen one case of the virus in anyone under 16."
"Interesting... well we can certainly be thankful for that, whatever the cause. We appreciate you joining us, Dr. Gupta."
"Always a pleasure."
Meanwhile, the virus has begun to spread through the city's population. At another downtown, clinic, dozens of sick patients were seated in a hospital waiting room. Every single one of them wore a face mask.
Steven Crowder and his wife Hailey Crowder had both been feeling the effects of the virus. When it became clear that they were infected, they both decided to check in to the hospital together. After the nurse announced a name, Steven noticed that the patient she'd called had come in after they had already arrived. Mr. Crowder got up and approached the front desk. He motioned towards the other patient as he arrived at the triage center.
"Why is he being seen?" The patient pointed to his wife and himself. "We were here first."
"What are you talking about?" the first man asked the other.
Steven rushed over and shoved his watch into the second man's face. "We've been here since 2:00 o'clock."
The other patient slapped his wrist away. Following this equal show of aggression, the two men began fighting each other. Mrs. Crowder attempted to restrain her husband, but when these efforts failed, other people in the waiting room stepped in and began trying to keep them apart. This didn't work, as one of the men who was holding Steven threw his arm out in an attempt to wrap it around Mr. Crowder's left shoulder. In doing so, he accidentally hit a second man as he was rushing over to help restrain the other patient. These two men then also began going at it. Observing this bizarre situation, the nurse sitting at the front desk shouted into the phone. It was the only way to be heard by the security guard she'd contacted for help.
Once it became clear that the virus posed a global threat, some countries in the G-7 suggested meeting to discuss a possible international approach to defeating the illness. The Chinese, having suffered through their share of simian flu-like epidemics, stayed in their own corner. Doctors in Beijing had begun researching the illness on their own. The country was reluctant to join the multinational effort. To begin with, China believed that collaborating with other nations would only slow down the diagnostic analyses they'd started to put in place. A coordinated medical effort would also involve the influx of a lot of foreigners--China's leaders were hesitant to let infected individuals travel to their country for an intelligence exchange. In the government's mind, the only real solution was total lockdown.
One morning, Nurse Brody walked into Lewis' room. Mr. Sutton lay in bed appearing to be asleep. Every morning when the physician's assistant entered, she discussed the weather. She'd remind her patient how important it was for him to get well soon so he could finally get outside and enjoy it. Of course, as word of the potential deadliness of the virus began to spread across the airwaves, her hopeful remarks were replaced by inquiries into his general well-being and silent, nervous measurements of his vitals. The nurse opened a container of pills she was holding. Suddenly an arm reached out and grabbed her by the wrist. She looked over at Mr. Sutton. His face was white as a sheet and his eyes were blood red. He began biting her arm. She struggled to get away, but Lewis' teeth were already ripping her flesh. She overturned the tray that sat on her patient's bedside as she finally pulled out of his grip. Lewis jumped from the bed and threw the woman to the ground before rushing past her into the hall.
Nancy Winthrop was another nurse on duty that evening with Abigail. They'd taken the late-night shift together for a number of months now. Both of them complained about the lack of discipline among patients in the evening. They were strictly forbidden to leave their rooms for vending room snacks after a certain time at night. Yet, these individuals still refused to eat their prepared food and instead tided their hunger over with candy and chips. Hearing someone making his way down the hall, Nancy vowed to put an end to his snack-machine visit. Moments later, the nurse saw Lewis stumbling along through the corridor. It was particularly important for people suffering from a mysterious illness like simian flu to avoid endangering themselves--or infecting others. "Mr. Sutton, you should not be out of your room," she exclaimed. Her advice was ignored.
The physician's assistant then followed him. As she passed the ward he'd escaped from, she saw the other nurse lying on the floor with a huge gash on her arm and blood all over her uniform. Nancy screamed. She darted back to her station and called security.
Moments later two guards rushed up to Lewis and held him as a doctor injected the patient with Demerol. After this incident, Lewis was kept under sedation around the clock.
The following afternoon, Jill Peterson addressed the nation about the incident. "Lewis Sutton, the man who's now believed to be patient zero in the simian flu outbreak is under close observation today after attacking a nurse. Countries are shutting down their borders to keep out travelers who've been infected with the virus. Some are citing this kind of xenophobia as an obstacle to any coordinated international effort to fight the disease. This lack of government response adds to concerns in the US that moisture from flooding left by last month's violent hurricane has created an ideal environment for the flu's bacteria."
Back in my dad's office, my father turned off a centrifuge he was using to synthesize a set of chemicals. He walked into Ed's suite two doors down from his own. "This thing is a beast."
"Are they having any luck with the contact tracing?" Ed asked him.
"At this point, it could be too late for containment efforts."
"Great!" Ed replied.
"One thing's for sure," my dad continued. "The best way to fight whatever it is we're dealing with is to find the original host. Lewis said it was an albino chimp... had some kind of bite mark on its shoulder."
Ed looked again at my father. "How would we even begin that kind of haystack search?"
"Well, it's possible that a game warden in Brasilia could locate it given we know exactly where in the country Lou was attacked."
"You up for a trip to Brazil?" Ed queried.
"Not sure how much luck we'd have right now. Countries aren't too keen on letting anyone else in."
"You got a point there," Ed responded nodding his head.
As humanity was attempting to plan its campaign against the illness, the virus was quickly mutating inside its human host. The flu had begun to produce a grotesque form of leprosy in its victims in which skin would start to peel off and the bone attaching teeth to the gums would disintegrate nearly overnight.
The illness had also switched from simply attacking cells to corrupting them, putting them at odds with one another. The viral nucleus was now literally attempting to kill the non-infected cells surrounding it. In the host this made the individual whom the flu was attacking begin to outwardly hate anyone who wasn't a zombie as well. It was a kind of "misery loves company" syndrome in which someone with the disease wouldn't be satisfied until everyone around him or her was also infected. This or he or she simply wanted to destroy those who'd escaped contamination. Period.
In the Ukraine, another development started attracting international attention. There was an incident where a group of individuals had broken into a gun store. When police were dispatched to the area, they caught sight of the individuals who'd been reported and told them to lay down their weapons. The people in question seemed to have no intention of doing so. The freaked-out cops warned them they were about to fire. Their surprise turned to shock when the perps not only displayed no fear of being hit with live ammo, but actually seemed to be inviting the officers to take the first shot.
Later that afternoon, Abigail was filling out paperwork when she started coughing. She began to sway back and forth and then crashed into a shelf full of medicine knocking it over.
Two other nurses rushed towards her. "Are you alright?" one of them asked as she bent down to help her coworker up. As she got closer she looked at Abigail--her colleague's eyes were bright red. "Abi, what's wrong?" her coworker asked her as she cradled the fallen women's head in her arms.
Now the other nurse joined the effort to pick her up. Abigail continued to accept their help until she was standing. On her feet once again, she took a broken test tube she'd picked up off the ground and swung it at one of the other women. The shard slashed the first nurse in the neck. The second Abigail cut across her back, now turning and running from the infected nurse, before she was able to make it any further in her desperate retreat.
In another wing of the hospital, Mr. Sutton sat up in bed with his eyes closed. A male nurse walked in and began taking the patient's blood pressure. Lewis' eyes opened. He lifted a scalpel he was holding under the covers and stabbed the nurse in the chest. The assistant fell to the floor. Lewis then got up and walked out into the corridor where he continued to proceed through the empty hall.
Back at Olivia's, she and Maddy were watching a broadcast of an address by President Christopher Marks. The Republican leader's own mother had died from swine flu. He'd begun planning for an outbreak like the simian virus ever since the beginning of his tenure as president. He stood at a podium on the White House Lawn talking to a group of reporters, who sat spaced out in observation of the CDC's recent social distancing guidelines.
"In light of this devastating pandemic, I am declaring a national emergency effective immediately. All restaurants and bars will be prohibited from offering in-person dining and remain shuttered until further notice." Following this statement, he scanned the audience. "I know the next few weeks and possibly months will not be easy. But we will weather this storm together. We are the first and last line of defense against this invisible enemy for both ourselves and for our children."
Olivia looked on as the leader of her nation stressed the importance of protecting the children of the country. "Cuz' they've got such a great track record with that," she said with staccatic nods of her head.
Soon the students at Worwick received notice that their school was closing. As teachers started developing strategies for a transition to online learning, kids found themselves with a great deal of free time on their hands.
The teens ordered lattes that they took to go. As they walked through the downtown area, they passed by an isolation tent. Inside, patients could be heard in the throes of the illness. Some of the more aggressive cases had been tied down. Men and women in Hazmat suits were making rounds to each patient's cot.
"What a shitshow!" Adrian said to us as we continued past the mobile hospital and towards a wooded area.
15 minutes later, the four of us sat on a park picnic table drinking our coffee.
"What the actual fuck!" Maddy exclaimed.
Olivia agreed with her companion's sentiment. "As if people in this country aren't violent enough. We need a disease that's gonna' turn them all into bloodsucking zombies. Why do I see my parents attacking each other with kitchen utensils in the not-so-distant future?"
"Seriously," Maddy continued. "Can't these germs just stay where they are. Life is hard enough with acne and algebra to have to worry about some deadly virus."
"That's just it," I said. "These bacteria, or in this case their hosts like our simian friend, do mind their own business. Then we come along and start burning their habitats. That monkey was only stealing Mr. Sutton's food because farmers in Brazil torched his banana bush."
"Damn, one dude goes down there on vacay and a month later we're already at DEFCON 5!" Adrian said shaking his head.
Meanwhile in another part of the city's downtown, Mr. Sutton walked up to an unlucky guy on the street. He stretched out his hand entirely covered in blood with nails that had grown up to a quarter of an inch long. He lunged at the pedestrian and scratched his face. A two-inch gash appeared on the man's cheek. As the toxins present in Lewis' blood, now seeping out from his fingertips as a result of his peeling skin, began to combine with the victim's own, the man's body registered the chemical intrusion with a long, wheezing cough.
In another part of town, Abigail stepped on board a subway car. Her face was a pasty white and her eyes were red. Blood from her encounter with her former colleague stained her uniform. She looked around. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a child sitting with its feet up on the bench. This had always pissed her off, even before she developed a taste for Type B-positive. She walked up to the little douche and threw him off the seat onto the ground. The child started balling before his face slammed into the train floor. His tablet cracked. Super Mario lost his last life. Some of the other passengers might have applauded if they hadn't finally taken in the full appearance of his assailant. Aside from the blood on her uniform and the ghost-white skin, her pin-sized pupils shot out venom. The kid's mother hadn't even bothered to look at Abigail as she instinctively stood up to protest. The now zombified health worker pushed her down just as quickly. She hit the floor next to her son. The woman formerly known as Abigail lunged at the woman's leg and dug her teeth in to the bare skin, inciting a ton of terrified screams from everyone in the subway.