Things to Come
Roanoke, W. Virginia
48 hours earlier
Ever preparing for the vast unknown, we fling ourselves into the future ill equipped with tools fashioned on the anvils of mortal minds… and yet, in life’s greatest paradox, only then can we cast aside the wings of the known, and walk firmly within our new found selves.
Sounds from below put everyone on edge, bodies rigid, frozen, lest their paltry existence come to a gruesome end with with a creak of wood or a cracking of joints. Dread silence, punctuated by the unmistakable sound of footsteps below, drawing closer. Patrick choked back a cough, tickling in his chest, born of the sepulchral air, human stench, and uncovered fiberglass of their crowded attic. His heart was pounding in his chest, drumming in his ears. Moments dragged on in countless shallow breaths as the survivors waited, with nauseous anticipation, a verdict to their fate… to be found, or saved. Patrick took stock of the poor souls huddled around him, the babe in his arms, his wife trembling at his side, his sister in law, and her seven year old son. Gruesome images flashed through his mind as his thoughts tiptoed into the possibility of their demise. They had come to survive, amidst a world burgeoning with horror, and yet they had lost their lives. Now, fragments of their former selves, they had become mere stubborn vessels of breath, flesh, and bones.
James had crawled down from attic some time ago in an attempt to gather viable foodstuffs and supplies… but Patrick had no idea how long he had been gone. Time was illusory in this cramped cell. Devoid of light and subject to a maddening and nervous boredom, the only measure of time were the periods of chilling cold that came with the fall of night. Their usual tools for such a menial task as keeping time, cellphones and PDAs, had long since failed them as their batteries drained of life.
The sound of footsteps drew closer… a steady dirge… and came to stop below the draw down ladder to the attic. Patrick held his breath, felt in his skin a sudden rush of heat and in his stomach a swirling nausea. Then, a slow knock at the portal, rhythmic and patterned, and he felt the world lifting from his shoulders, and a collective sigh of relief from those around him. James had returned.
He muttered a silent prayer as Sarah, James’ wife, scrambled over to lower the ladder. Pale, bleached rays of light filtered into the attic as the drop down ladder was lowered, and he heard a muted, but heartfelt exchange between James and his wife. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on letting loose the knots of stress in his shoulders, and shifted the sleeping babe in his arms so he could reach out to gently stroke Jessica’s back. Floorboards creaked as Sarah and her son Chris helped James lift half a dozen plastic bags of supplies up into the attic.
The shuffling sounds were momentarily muted as Sarah and James exchanged hushed words… Patrick, lost in the flood of relief spilling through his body, was dragged back into the moment as he heard James’ voice raise for a moment “he’s got two legs…” before being cutoff by a stern hush from Sarah. Patrick felt an embarrassment creep through him like a poison, and gestured for Jessica to take the baby. At his touch she seemed to shrink away, turning her back and shaking her head.
“Jessica please, I should go help” he whispered.
“No thanks.” She replied with a choke in her voice.
He tried to fight back the anger boiling in his gut. It’s not her fault, he assured himself. She was showing some indications of depression before the world went to shit… with all the stress…
“Here Tubs.” Chris chimed as he held out a bottle of water in his hand to Patrick.
“Christopher!” Sarah angrily scowled from from the ladder as she laid down another bag of supplies.
“It’s okay.” Patrick lied as he tried to let slide the feelings of guilt and shame that came with the young boy’s innocent revelation of what could only be his parent’s nickname for him. He couldn’t blame them. He felt like a burden. Out of shape and harboring a two month old baby and depressive wife, James, Sarah, and their son would have better odds on their own. The topic had come up a few days ago, when, running out of supplies, James had left the safety of the attic. James had always seemed cold and distant for some reason, but Sarah had been adamant that the family stay together. ‘There’s to few of us left,’ she had said… ‘we need to stick together.’ Merely remembering those words brought him some comfort.
Patrick let out a sigh as James pulled up the ladder and secured the hatch, darkness once again descending on the crawlspace. “Thank you James.” A grunt reply in the darkness.
A flick of a match and a candle illuminated James’ face. “We are going to have to move soon.” His voice was low, determined.
Patrick could feel Jessica sit up straight “There is nowhere to go…” she protested, her words punctuated by a cough, “we are safe here-”
“We are dying here.” Sarah cut in.
“Look…” James started, “Food is getting scarce…. most of the homes in the neighborhood were picked clean long ago. It took me days to find what I could, and even then, I spent half of that time hiding in places you wouldn’t believe to avoid being found. It was never the plan to stay holed up here for long.”
“I don’t want to go out there again mom.” Chris pleaded, digging his face into Sarah’s lap.
“Shh.. ” Sarah gently stroked his hair, “It will be okay honey.”
Patrick could see James shift his gaze from Chris to meet his eyes. “I think Patrick may have been right with his theory.” He said.
“You have seen fewer roamers?” Patrick replied, optimism creeping into his voice.
“That could be explained by competition for resources… a much simpler explanation than some mind controlling fungus.” Jessica spat.
Patrick tried to bottle his annoyance. Jessica was always combative with things she couldn’t explain… a counter-intuitive quality for an academic. “Their is evidence in nature,” Patrick replied, “Ants have been known to become infected with a fungus that alters their behavior so as to propagate itself. It explains the irrational change in people’s behavior, and it would also likely drive them to move toward centers of high population to further propagate.”
“Yes,” Jessica retorted, “But that doesn’t explain how the outbreak started on a near global scale- “
“Please,” Sarah cut in, desperation and anger fusing in her voice, “Lets not start this again. What matters is there are fewer of them out there. What matters is we are running out of supplies, and the truth is, we can’t stay here much longer.”
“I want to revisit the idea of visiting my brother.” James’ voice was resolute, his words more statement than suggestion. “He lives off the grid,” he continued, “Which means that if hes safe, then we might actually have a place we can escape to… a place we can try to start a new life, at the least, a place to bide time to get our bearings and gather some news.”
“Speaking of news, have you been able to get your hands on a radio?” Sarah inquired.
“No, this is the golden land of ipods and laptops. The only radio’s I have seen are in Hummers and Lexus’. I haven’t had the time to go rummaging for keys hoping to find a car to match.”
Patrick had a queasy feeling in his gut. This was going to happen. They would be leaving what had become a pocket of safety. They could argue on, wasting breath in a vain attempt to forestall what could only possibly be one more horrific flight through what had become a wasteland of civilization, but in the end, well, he could only hope.
“James is right.” Patrick intoned, attempting to summon what bravery he had left. “I don’t see what option we have. I trust you James. I know we’ll be safe.” He wanted to believe himself, but somewhere inside, his soul trembled.