At William’s insistence, the group has moved from the cafeteria back to the comfortable lounge. Jackie and Jennifer are looking at a magazine with Benjamin. Charles is reading a book in a recliner in the corner. Sharon and Fresler are murmuring quietly to each other, awaiting William’s promised return. When he at last walks through the door, everyone snaps to attention.
“We have the results of Fresler’s blood test,” William says.
“Did you learn anything that would help explain how I’m connected to these people?” asks Fresler. He can’t read William’s expression, but the lack of a smile only heightens his mounting dread. Everyone keeps calling him a cure, but he feels infected—his own body invaded by someone or something genocidal.
“Yes, Fresler, we did find something… unusual. Would you like to discuss this in private?”
“There’s no need to discuss this in private. These people are my family now; anything you need to tell me you can say in front of them.” Fresler flashes them all a smile and gets reassuring nods in return. “What did you find out?”
“Your blood shows unique genetic markers that we have never seen before. We couldn’t determine your blood type based on your antigens. What we do know is that this unknown blood type is the reason you’re immune from the virus. We plan to run more tests, but for now, that’s what we’ve been able to determine.”
Fresler doesn’t know what to say. An unknown blood type? How was that possible?
“Could this be the result of something that was injected into Fresler’s blood by these people?” asks Charles.
“No. It’s impossible to change a person’s blood type or genetic markers by simply injecting them with a foreign substance,” says William with stern finality.
“So, is Fresler related to these people, the ones who caused the pandemic? Where are they from?” asks Sharon, clutching Fresler’s hand.
“All great questions. I wish I had more answers. We would need to run blood tests on Fresler’s parents to learn more.” William clears his throat. “Fresler, are your parents…?”
“I don’t know if they’re still alive,” says Fresler, suddenly cold to the bone. “I’m praying they are. They live in Norway, so the temperatures should still be below freezing. But I’ve had no way to contact them since all this began.”
William claps his hands. “The CDC has private jets and communications with Europe. It won’t be diﬃcult to find them and bring them here.”
“Are my parents even genetically related to me?” says Fresler, unable to stop the childish lilt that creeps into his voice. The idea is far more upsetting than being experimented on by unseen enemies—a revelation he never would have guessed.
“Once we test their blood, we’ll know for certain,” is all William can say. “But we hope that learning more about Fresler’s unique connection to the virus will also give us insight into who caused this pandemic, and why.”
“We know why,” Charles growls. “They wanted to kill everyone on the planet!”
William hesitates, scratching his chin. “I don’t know if that was their goal. If they wanted to kill everyone on the planet, we would all be dead already. This is an extremely complex virus that was designed to have a specific weakness, which is the only reason why there are survivors. We’re not sure why they designed a virus with a weakness, or why they didn’t simply fire the probe into a populated city during the summer months. Nor do we know why they left a message in the probe to help us develop a cure. We can only conclude they wanted survivors.”
“So why would they want to kill all but two hundred and fifty million people?” Charles stiffens like he’s ready to throw a punch.
“That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t have an answer.”
“Do you think they’re from another planet?” asks Sharon.
A few months ago, the idea would have sounded silly, and Fresler never would have expected to hear it come out of her mouth of all people’s, but now … anything is possible. He hardly flinches, though he does turn to her with one eyebrow cocked as the possibility sinks in.
“There is no way to be certain where they’re from,” says William with a low sigh, “but the probe was made from an unknown substance and Fresler’s blood is unlike anyone from… Well, it’s not anything we’ve seen before, and we have some of the world’s best working on this case.”
Fresler clears his throat. “So, what do you think? Can the CDC develop a vaccine from my blood?”
William’s worried frown flips into a genuine smile of relief. “Yes, we can easily synthesize a vaccine. Even a cure to help reverse the eﬀects of the virus in already infected people, like you did with Jennifer.”
“How long will it be before the medicine is available?” asks Sharon.
“Probably less than a week.”
In an instant, they are all out of their seats, and Fresler finds himself in the middle of a bear hug. Alien blood … genetically modified blood … whatever it is, maybe it’s not all bad, he thinks with a smile.
At dinner, Jennifer splits from the others to join Tina in the quarantine area, while everyone else heads to the cafeteria. Jackie and Sharon make Jennifer a plate for when she returns.
“These last couple of weeks have been unbelievable,” murmurs Sharon as they all settle in and start unrolling their silverware.
“I agree,” says Fresler with a good-natured scoff. “But I want to thank all of you for being here for me. Without you, I would never have made it here alive, and there wouldn’t be a vaccine. I only wish John were with us.” A tense silence falls. “Jackie, have you heard anything from William?” he asks after a moment.
Jackie bursts into tears. A cry of dismay goes up around the table, and Sharon immediately scoots into Jennifer’s saved seat to wrap Jackie in a hug.
“Jackie, what have you heard?” Sharon murmurs, offering her a napkin for her nose.
“They haven’t found him, but they did find his backpack,” says Jackie, voice quivering.
“Just the backpack?” Fresler asks. “Nothing else?” At Jackie’s tentative nod, Fresler reaches over the table to pat her hand. “He may still be okay, Jackie.”
“Thanks, but I just have a bad feeling… Like I’ve known all along he’s….” Jackie’s mouth forms the next word, but no sound comes out. She leans into Sharon and cries harder. The others sit in quiet solidarity until she pulls herself together a bit with a harsh sniffle.
“Please don’t say anything to Jennifer,” Jackie says. “I don’t want her to worry about her father.”
“Of course not,” Sharon says, patting Jackie’s back.
“Speaking of Jennifer,” Charles says, motioning toward the cafeteria door with his chin.
William is walking in their direction, Jennifer and Tina by his side. Tina beams at them, her mask gone for good.
Turning away, Jackie quickly wipes her face clean, then jumps up to meet Jennifer. She hugs her as though she hasn’t seen her for days.
Jennifer pushes her away with a worried frown. “Mom, what’s with you?”
“Can’t your mom give you a hug?”
Jennifer narrows her eyes at Jackie’s plastered on smile. “Mom, is everything—”
“Yes, sweetie. Don’t worry.” Jackie turns to Tina. “You look well.”
“Tina is no longer infected,” William confirms. “We injected her with Fresler’s blood and re-tested her.”
“That’s great news,” says Sharon, clapping.
William chuckles as he nods. “It’s getting late. Let me show you to your rooms. I’m sure Benjamin is sleepy,” he says, patting Benjamin on the top of his head.
As William leads them to the second floor, he explains that, before the outbreak, the CDC headquarters were retrofitted in order to provide bedrooms for the four hundred individuals that live in the building. There are also guest quarters—former conference rooms—each comprised of a bedroom and attached bathroom. It is one of these that he flings open for Sharon and Fresler first.
“It’s not the Ritz,” William says, “but you should be comfortable enough.”
When the door shuts on Sharon and Fresler for the night, she sinks into the bed with a sigh. She may not have a change of clothes, but the bathroom has basic toiletries and the mattress is soft and welcoming. She feels as though she could drift off in seconds.
But her mind wanders to what Charles told her about the government’s decision not to warn everyone about the virus, the two of them tucked away in a corner of the building after lunch. Here on this bed, ridiculously giddy with the idea of using the toothpaste she can see on the bathroom sink, she is awash in gratitude, but she knows that luck was a huge factor. The idea brings nausea each time it strikes. She didn’t earn this by being Fresler’s girlfriend. She’s sure there are millions of more-deserving people who have already died or will die before the vaccine and cure are synthesized.
If the world makes it through this crisis, she thinks, she wants to be on the front lines as they rebuild. That’s how she can give back.