Frozen Pandemic

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Fresler bends against the icy wind as he trudges back through the path he carved in the knee-high Minnesota snow earlier in the week. The hinges of the front door to the small cabin he shares with his girlfriend Sharon are partially frozen, and he has to yank the knob to open it wide enough to step inside.

The cabin isn’t much bigger than a three-car garage, and he can see Sharon’s long blond hair tumbling down the scratchy plaid upholstery of the sofa on the far side of the living space.

“Anything yet?” he asks her as he stomps his feet at the entrance to kick the snow off his polar-grade boots.

“Nothing new.” Sharon leans her head over the back of the couch to peer up at him as he shrugs out of his thick, insulated red coat. Her big brown eyes shine a little too brightly in the overhead light. She was crying again, while he was out.

One month ago, their life was completely different. They were normal. A little on the hippie granola side, sure. Fresler always preferred to wear his long red hair in a bun, and their off-the-grid cabin, a relic of a vacation his parents took years ago, reflected his and Sharon’s passion for the environment. But they’d been normal people. They’d had a real life. Now their days were spent simply surviving … and mourning.

“How are you holding up?” Fresler knows full well the answer is bleak, but he asks anyway. It’s all he knows to do.

He crosses the room, ready to take her in his arms, but before he can drop into the sunken cushion beside her, she picks up the AM radio and starts her usual fiddling—a newfound compulsion.

A month ago, a deadly virus hit the globe’s warmer regions with unbelievable ferocity, killing everyone who didn’t have access to respirator masks or a hermetically-sealed environment. Those in far-north regions, like Minnesota, Canada, Russia, and Northern Europe, have survived—for now. But their safety is temporary. Should the temperatures rise above freezing, the virus will take hold in days.

By the CDC’s best estimate, only two hundred and fifty million people remain alive in the world. Nearly eight billion are dead, wiped from existence in a blink.

The radio has become Fresler and Sharon’s only means of communication in a world gone silent. They lost the internet a few weeks ago, when most people running the satellites and maintaining the servers contracted the virus. Once a day, the CDC headquarters in Atlanta broadcasts an update on AM radio. Other than that, the radio sits as silent as the rest of their snowy mountain.

Even the landline phones are down. Fresler’s parents live in Norway, which gives him hope, but he has no idea if they survived the initial outbreak.

As for Sharon’s family…

She reaches up to clutch his hand. Fresler squeezes her fingers, wishing a simple touch were enough to heal all the wounds. He loves the feel of her small hand in his. He’s memorized every curve and plane of her palm, every wrinkle and callus. Hand in hand with Sharon, Fresler feels like he can face just about any obstacle.

“I just can’t believe they’re gone,” Sharon whispers.

“I know, honey.” He sighs, sitting beside her.

Together, they watch the snow fall outside. Just a light snow, for February, delicate flakes dancing in the wind and landing silently on the branches of the pine and cedar trees that surround the cabin. Unless the storm builds, Fresler thinks, he might not even have to shovel again. His arms and back still ache from clearing a path to the river after the blizzard that passed through last week. Of course, he’s happy to shovel snow as long as it keeps falling. Minnesota’s bitter winter is the only thing keeping them alive.

Sharon sets aside the radio and leans into the circle of his arm with a little, whimpering sob that cracks his heart down the center.

“Not just my parents,” she says through a watery whisper, “but everyone I was close to. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, and all thirteen cousins. We grew up together. We even went on family vacations together, and now… they’re all gone. It doesn’t seem real.”

“I am so sorry, Sharon. I can’t imagine…”

She sniffs hard, straightening herself and wiping away a stray tear. “This life we live…” She shakes her head with a joyless smile. “It can bring you to your knees.”

Fresler nods. “True.”

Sharon clears her throat and lifts her eyes to his. “We’re going to have to consider moving farther north soon. Temperatures are going to warm up.”

“Not just yet.” Fresler surveys their cabin again with nostalgia tugging his heartstrings. A childhood summer retreat turned post-college pad turned apocalyptic haven; he won’t let it go without a fight. This place means as much to his parents as to him; they fell in love with northern Minnesota at first sight. Enamored himself, he moved to the US after high school to attend Bethel University. Moving into the cabin was an easy decision.

Even before the outbreak, the cabin had everything he and Sharon needed to build a life together. Their quaint little one-bedroom holds his most treasured memories of the life he has built with Sharon. Curled together under a quilt in front of the fireplace, watching movies on the big old TV Fresler set up in the corner. Nights entangled between the sheets in their cozy bedroom. Laughter shared in the early mornings as they brushed their teeth side by side in the en suite bathroom. Lately, they’ve been using the fireplace to cook the fish he catches in the river nearby. The bedroom is still a place of solace, but now it carries memories of holding Sharon’s shaking body against his chest, weeping into her soft hair. The toilet is no longer functioning, nor is the shower, but they’ve jerry-rigged a system to heat river water on the stove and cart it into the bathroom, to take a bath in the deep clawfoot tub. Outside, next to the tool shed, there’s the solar-powered greenhouse, where Sharon grows enough vegetables to keep the two of them healthy and fed.

They were fortunate to have the place when the outbreak struck. The historic cabin, built long before electricity was the norm, has proven the perfect shelter now that the world has returned to its rustic roots.

“I hate the idea of leaving this cabin,” he finally says. “It’s been in our family for decades… but I agree, we can’t stay here forever, not with spring on the way.” Spring and the coming warmth that once symbolized hope and rebirth, will now bring with it the virus that has already eaten its way through most of the continental US. Airborne and savage, the virus still has no known cure, or even a vaccine to help prevent infection. Most of Fresler and Sharon’s neighbors have already left, traveling toward Canada where the weather will stay colder longer.

A siren rings out, and although they were expecting the Emergency Alert System broadcast, both Fresler and Sharon startle at the shrill sound. Miles away from civilization, without television or the internet, they’ve grown used to prolonged, eerie quiet.

Sharon grabs the radio and turns up the volume. It’s time for another message from the CDC.

They both listen intently, breaths held. Maybe some progress has been made. Maybe a scientist has made a breakthrough on their research, and a treatment has been found.

Maybe they’ll find a reason to hope again.

After the CDC’s usual introduction and routine warnings—that anywhere above freezing temperatures, the virus becomes airborne; that anybody in a place above freezing needs to wear a respirator mask at all times to avoid infection; that anyone already infected needs to avoid contact with others, because their blood will be highly contagious—a new message begins. Sharon turns to Fresler with the look of a tortured animal wary of a hand extended in comfort. She clutches his hand even tighter. It’s been weeks since they’ve heard anything new.

“We are diligently working to develop a vaccine, but until that happens, continue migrating north to Canada or Alaska. There are settlement agencies located in Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, ready to help you relocate. Keep in mind that the fatality rate is one hundred percent. There have been no known survivors, so avoid all contact with animals or the infected.”

As the announcement begins to repeat, Sharon lowers the volume and looks at Fresler. She shakes her head in disbelief. “The fatality rate is one hundred percent. How is that possible?”

Fresler’s guts feel taut, readying to launch his breakfast back out into the living room. “It doesn’t seem possible,” he says with a helpless shrug. “In the past, there have always been survivors, no matter how deadly the virus. Smallpox, Spanish flu, COVID, Ebola… but with this virus… it just doesn’t make any sense.”

The CDC announcement concludes with a burst of static. They sit with hands still clasped between them and stare out the window. With snow dusting the trees, the sun dropping lower on the horizon, and a fire crackling in the hearth, this could be any winter afternoon. Fresler lets himself daydream of life without the virus. He imagines strolling through the grocery store with Sharon, calling his parents and hearing a cheery hello on the other end, and sitting around a dining table full of friends.

All were mundane pleasures once. Safety was a luxury rarely pondered. He tells himself they are safe, for now—for a few weeks or months longer, at least... There’s no need to run or to fight. Not here. Not yet.

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