Frozen Pandemic

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Tina tears herself from her cousin’s deep-set hazel eyes, the edges creased with a worry she can’t bear to see, and notices that the sun is just starting to rise above the top of the pine trees in the distance. It follows its ancient path across the sky, while the river continues its journey downstream, like any other day. But this isn’t just another normal day. This is day fourteen.

“Sean still has a fever,” Tina says, her whisper hollow.

Larry takes Tina’s hand. “We can’t be certain he has it.”

He doesn’t say “the virus,” but she hears it anyway. It’s been echoing in her head for two weeks.

Tina squeezes her eyes shut, hoping it will stop her tears. “He’s always been there for me.” As pictures blossom behind her lids—Sean running alongside her wobbling bike; Sean driving her home when she called crying from Michaela Smart’s party; Sean smiling in the front row of a dark auditorium; Sean facing down Bobby Evans for calling her an ugly name—Tina flings open her eyes to stare at her own lap instead.

“I remember when I was a little girl, I was dragged to all of Sean’s basketball games.” She smiles and wipes away a tear. “He played AAU during the summer and Mom forced me to be in the stands. I had no choice.” She picks at her worn-out jeans. “Sean had a choice.”

“What do you mean, he had a choice?” says Larry.

“After Mom passed, Sean went to all of my band concerts and piano recitals. Every… single—one. He had a choice, and he chose me. He wasn’t my father… and yet he took me to school and picked me up every day. Dad certainly wasn’t going to. He checked out after Mom died. Did you know that Sean would sit in the front row of each concert, and if I had a solo performance he would stand and whistle so loud that everyone in the audience would turn and look at him? He was my biggest fan.”

Larry wraps his arms around her as she cries into his chest. He starts to speak, but it turns into a gruff, awkward cough at the back of his throat.

Tina looks up at Larry, pleading for him to understand the depths of her grief. “He put off going to the police academy for me. He convinced me to apply to the Curtis Institute.” She shakes her head. “What am I going to do without him? I’m so lost right now.”

As the sun dips a sliver of itself behind the tree line, Tina leaves the cabin. Fresler and Sharon are down by the river, heads tipped back to watch the sky shift from pink to cobalt.

Tina hurries into the storage shed and sits on Fresler’s sleeping bag, hoping he and Sharon linger by the river a few minutes longer. She sits opposite of Sean with her back against the wall.

Sean pushes himself into a seated position and forces a smile. “So, little sis, how was dinner? Let me guess: fish and beans?” When Tina doesn’t answer, Sean tries, “Cold out here, huh? Do you think it will snow again?”

In a low, serious tone, Tina says, “I don’t want to talk about dinner or the weather. I want you to tell me how you’re doing… how you’re feeling.”

“I’m fine,” Sean mutters.

“Stop!” Tina shouts, and Sean startles. Tina sets her jaw and clenches her fists tight. She unfolds her hands on her knees and takes a deep breath. In a softer tone, she says, “Stop protecting me. You’re doing the same thing that Mom did to us. I want the truth.”

Sean nods slowly. “All right, Tina.” He clears his throat. “I knew the day that coyote bit me… I knew I had this thing, and I’m scared… scared to leave you.” A single tear tracks down Sean’s cheek.

His face blurs as tears pour from her eyes, as if his words have given her permission to unleash her grief. They both sit in silence for a few moments.

“Tina, look at me.” She wipes her tears with her sleeve and finds her big brother’s bloodshot eyes. “I want you to promise me that you’ll stay by John and Larry’s sides. They’ll protect you. Promise.”

After two false starts, Tina says in a quivering voice, “You’re the one that has always protected me… always been there for me.”

Sean bites down on his lip, choking down a cry of grief. Tina doesn’t have the same strength. Her sobs escape and fill the shed.

“I won’t be able to protect you anymore,” Sean says, leaning forward a few inches, keeping his hands close to his sides. “Promise me, Tina.”

“I promise,” she chokes out.

Fresler and Sharon are nearly back to the storage shed when Tina bursts through the door and flees to the cabin, obscuring her face with a hand.

“I wonder what that was all about,” says Sharon.

But Fresler doesn’t wonder. He’s watched Sean deteriorate further with each passing day, even as Fresler himself returns to health. He’s heard Sean weeping in the middle of the night, trying to muffle the sound by burying his face in his sleeping bag. If Tina is running from him like that… Sean may have just said his goodbyes.

Fresler and Sharon embrace in front of the entrance to the storage shed and say goodnight. Fresler tries to give Sean a moment to recover before opening the door, but when he enters, Sean’s still wiping away tears.

“Everything all right, Sean?” he asks, even though he’s fairly sure he knows the answer. Sean will nod. He’ll be lying.

Fresler is curled up in his sleeping bag, staring at the metal ceiling of the cold, musty-smelling tin can he’s been forced to call home for two weeks. Each evening before sunset, he retreats behind its flimsy steel walls, devoid of windows, paintings, or pictures. He will never look at this storage shed the same way again.

Thirty years ago, his parents built this three-hundred-square-foot structure for the sole purpose of storing tools and knickknacks. It was never meant to be a residence. Yet one rabid coyote transformed it into a sanctuary. Without this shed, he and Sean would have been forced to stay inside the cabin—where the toasty temperatures would keep the virus active. And if Sean really is infected, and if the virus is truly airborne, then…

Then this storage shed saved his Sharon’s life.

Fresler is startled by the sound of Sean’s coughing. He looks over and sees Sean forcing himself to sit up against the wall, teeth gritted in pain. He can’t seem to find a comfortable position. Fresler hesitates, then decides to trust in the fact that he has yet to show a single symptom. He moves to sit next to Sean and puts his own blanket around the man.

Sean looks up, as though just noticing Fresler, and says, “Thank you. For everything you’ve done these last two weeks.”

Fresler just smiles and rubs the younger man’s back in the hopes of warming him up. He can feel the muscles surrounding Sean’s spine convulse like an earthquake rolling through a city, causing destruction with every ebb and flow. Blood starts to drip from Sean’s nose. Fresler wishes he had some morphine.

Fresler glances at his watch. 1:30 a.m. He has a feeling it’s going to be a long night.

Sean keeps sliding down the wall, eventually landing on his side. He makes a weak attempt to push himself back upright, but slumps with a resigned grunt. Fresler sits helpless while Sean murmurs nonsense, eyelids fluttering as he drifts in and out of consciousness.

Sean’s convulsions grow stronger beneath Fresler’s palm. Just when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, Sean throws up. Each heave splatters dark blood over the floor. He really did have the virus all along. Fresler had hoped Sean’s fever was the result of his infection, but now the diagnosis is obvious. Fresler’s sense of helplessness grows, making his breathing shallow. He swirls his palm over Sean’s back in steady circles in a weak attempt to comfort his newest friend, at a loss for what else to do.

Sean is desperately trying to speak, but he is having a difficult time catching his breath in between the coughing and convulsions.

“Take your time,” Fresler tells him gently, although he’s not sure how much time he has left.

“You… shouldn’t have any doubts… that you’re immune from this virus, Fresler,” Sean manages, breathing harder with each word. “It’s up to you now… you know what to do.” Then he falls silent and begins to shake violently.

The shakes last an hour. Eventually, Sean’s eyes close, and the convulsions stop. Fresler feels Sean’s muscles contracting and relaxing with every slow breath. The end is near. Fresler’s first instinct is to get Tina and Larry, so they can be with Sean in his final moments. But he knows doing so would put them both at risk of contracting the virus. Not to mention how difficult it would be for them to see Sean in this condition.

Sean’s limbs start to twitch. Fresler feels the exact moment that the younger man takes his last breath and stills forever. Fresler’s stomach clenches, threatening to spill dinner. An eerie, disturbing finality squeezes his heart, promising that the same fate awaits him someday. In the terrible silence, Fresler tries to hold back the tears, but he can’t fight them. His eyes well up as he covers Sean’s body with the sleeping bag. For a long moment, he sobs over his friend. He has never seen anyone die before. Though his stomach still roils, he thinks that, despite the terror of the moment, there was a strange kind of peace to it. An end to Sean’s suffering.

Fresler hopes—no, believes—that his soul has transcended to a better place.

Fresler doesn’t sleep at all that night. He stares up at the ceiling of the shed, thinking about Sean’s last words. “It’s up to you… You know what to do.”

Is it possible that if he does nothing, all two hundred and fifty million people still alive on this planet will die? It feels like a cosmic joke, an odd fever dream, but he doesn’t see what other hope humanity has. Soon, the temperatures will begin to warm with the approach of summer. He doesn’t have much time.

Still, the size of this responsibility terrifies Fresler. He never asked for this. He has never done anything in his life that would be considered heroic. He’s not like John or Sean’s dad. He keeps thinking to himself, why me? What is so special about me?

He has to get to the CDC. There are two hundred and fifty million people depending on him.

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