Frozen Pandemic

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Later that day, Fresler shivers beneath a pile of blankets and squints over at Sean through the gloom of the storage shed. Sean has unzipped his sleeping bag and stares at the ceiling with beads of sweat dripping from his forehead toward his ears. Fresler stares at the signs of fever, the shortening of his breath visible in the freezing cold.

“How are you feeling?” he asks quietly, trying not to betray his nerves with his voice. Although he told Sharon he doesn’t think he’s got the virus, he knows better than to assume he’s out of the woods just yet.

Sean squirms in his sleeping bag, wincing with every twitch of his muscles. “My arm and leg really hurt. I think they might be infected.”

Fresler scoots closer. “Let me take a look. When was the last time you took some ibuprofen?”

“About two hours ago… I think. I’m not really sure. I feel a little foggy…”

Fresler unwraps the bandages and struggles to hold down his breakfast at the sight of yellowish liquid surrounding the ragged wound. “You’re right, this is infected,” he says as calmly as he can manage. He sets to cleaning and rewrapping the wound on Sean’s arm. The kid has slept on and off all day, and Fresler thinks it might be nice to get to know his quarantine companion, now that he’s awake. Providing a distraction from this plight is the best thing he can think to do. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight,” Sean says through chattering teeth.

Fresler’s eyes widen. “I thought I was at least fifteen years older than you. I’m thirty-seven. But your sister looks like she can’t be older than twenty.” Fresler had assumed Sean was only a few years older than his sister. He has the softened features of a teenager. His blond stubble is patchy and fuzzy. His puffy cheeks and lack of a defined jaw only add to his teen heartthrob look.

“Yeah,” Sean says with a dry laugh. “I know what you’re thinking. I don’t look my age at all. Tina is a lot younger than me... only eighteen. Larry is twenty-nine.” Sean’s expression grows melancholy. “You know, Tina is a very talented musician. She was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She plays a couple of different instruments and has an amazing voice. She would have been famous someday.” His voice wavers, pride and sorrow warring on his face.

“Well, hopefully I’ll get the chance to hear her play,” Fresler says.

“I’d love to hear her play one more time,” Sean says quietly. “Before this is all over.”

The resigned look in his eyes isn’t lost on Fresler. “Don’t think like that. We’re both going to get through this.”

Sean doesn’t answer.

“Do you mind me asking what happened to your parents?” Fresler tries.

Sean’s eyes drift toward the ceiling. The pain of their loss is clearly still fresh. “My mom passed away years ago. But my dad contracted this virus, right at the start. We were living in Kenilworth, Illinois, at the time. We needed respirator masks to survive because it was too warm. My dad knew where to buy them, but to get them he had to leave our house, risking exposure. He did it anyway.” Sean’s face closes up in an expression that Fresler might have mistaken for anger if not for the tears clinging to his lashes. “Anyway, after he passed, the three of us drove toward Canada, thinking it’d be safer. But our car broke down along the way, so we’ve been hiking for the last week.”

“Your dad sounds like an amazing person,” Fresler says, catching Sean’s wandering eye.

“He was,” Sean says after a beat of silence. “He gave his life to make sure that we would be safe; that we would beat this damn virus. And now here I am, dying from it anyway.”

“Sean, you don’t know that. Your wounds are infected. Even a normal infection can cause a fever and virus-like symptoms.”

Sean stares at Fresler with the ghost of a smile, but his voice is low and morose when he speaks again. “I know what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it. But this feels like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Sean glowers at his bandaged arm. “I have this virus, Fresler, I’m sure of it. And if I’ve got it, and we were both bitten by the same coyote, you’ve got it too. Either that, or you’re immune.”

The word hangs in the air between them. It’s hope, and it’s folly. Fresler rolls back his shoulders, never breaking eye contact. “I’m not immune, Sean, and neither of us is dying from this thing.”

Sean’s eyes well with tears again, though he manages to contain them. “Thanks. If nothing else, I’m glad that I’m not alone.” He clears his throat. “New subject. Where are you from, Fresler? I can’t figure out your accent.”

The mundane nature of the question promises some relief, and Fresler answers with a growing grin, “I grew up in Norway. I didn’t come to the United States until I was eighteen.”

“Your English is really good.”

Fresler chuckles. “Thanks. We actually learn how to speak English in Norway.”

Sean’s eyes get a faraway look, like he’s imagining himself in Fresler’s homeland. “What was it like growing up there?”

“It was much different than the US. There were only five million people in Norway, versus over three hundred million in the US. And Norway was a socialist country, so we had high taxes but lots of social services.”

“Okay, but what does all that mean for the people there? What’s it like to live in Norway?”

Fresler thinks about it for a few seconds. “The Norwegian people are… unique. They hate conflict. They’ll do anything to avoid conflict. It’s almost impossible to stress out a Norwegian… they are extremely laid back.” Fresler grins wistfully, caught up in swirling colors and muffled sounds of memory. “Norway was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet ask a Norwegian where they would like to vacation, and they will tell you ‘A cabin in the woods.’” He pauses, pondering the most accurate descriptions of his native people. “Norwegians are super humble, and they hate violence. Boxing is actually illegal in Norway.”

“Wow, it sounds so different from here.”

“It is. The cities in Norway are extremely clean. Oslo is the most populated city in Norway. You could walk for miles in downtown Oslo and not find a single piece of trash, no graffiti, nothing.”

“It sounds like a different planet.”

Fresler nods. “When Norwegians watched the news and saw all of the violence and shootings in America, they thought of here as a different planet, too. Not to mention we Norwegians are big on equality and the environment. That’s why Sharon and I get along so well. We both share those same passions.”

Sean smiles wryly. “You would have hated my dad.”

“Why’s that?” Fresler raises his eyebrows.

“He was an executive for Exxon.”

Fresler snickers. “Don’t tell Sharon. She worked for the Sierra Club.”

Sean snorts. Unlike the Williamses, he clearly recognizes Sharon’s employer by name. “So, were you wealthy growing up?”

“We lived in a twelve-thousand-square-foot home with a view of Lake Michigan.” Sean’s smirk turns self-deprecating. “You might say we were comfortable.”

“Wow,” Fresler says. “That must have been nice.”

“It definitely had its advantages.”

Tina struggles to keep her eyes open as the fire warms her face. Her mind is too busy to sleep. She fears the nightmares of gnashing teeth and Sean’s screams. Shaking herself out of a doze, she looks over at Larry, sitting beside her on the couch. Tina glances over at Larry and watches the reflection of the fire in his eyes. He doesn’t feel her gaze, but she recognizes the unspoken question on his mind.

“Do you think Sean has this virus?” she asks.

“Try not to worry about Sean,” says Larry, reaching over to pat her arm. “He’s going to be fine.”

His touch seeks to reassure, but he doesn’t turn to meet her eyes. She stares into the fireplace. “I can’t help but worry about him. I worry about you both. You’re all I have left.”

Larry forces a smile. “Do you remember when Sean was eighteen and he was in that horrible car accident? He was hospitalized for two months and no one expected him to survive.”

“Of course, I remember,” Tina says, forcing her thick hair behind her ear with difficulty. “I was only eight, but I remember how terrified Mom and Dad were.”

“My parents told me that even if Sean survived, he would never walk again.” Larry puffs out a long breath, shaking his head. “Now look at him. Not only did he survive and walk again, but he went on to play football in college. Your brother is the strongest person I’ve ever known.”

“Thanks, Larry,” Tina says, bumping her shoulder against his in a childhood gesture of affection.

Jennifer walks into the room to warm herself by the fire. Tina watches the beautiful, willowy girl curl her lanky limbs into a cross-legged seat on the couch beside Larry. She’s said next to nothing to him or Tina since they arrived. Tina knows Jennifer’s type— stuck-up and all too aware of her good looks.

Jennifer gives Larry a little wave.

Tina narrows her eyes. “This is a private conversation.”

A flash of something—Anger? Frustration? Embarrassment?—crosses Jennifer’s face. “Sorry. I’ll leave.” Jennifer unravels and jumps up, walking back to the kitchen where her parents are talking and drinking tea.

Larry stares at Tina with a puzzled, disapproving look.

Tina glares back at him. “What?” she snaps, before turning back to the fire.

“What was that all about?” asks Larry.

“She bothers me.”

Larry grunts. “She seems nice enough to me. Quiet, sure, but not in a bad way.”

“I knew girls like her in high school.” Tina waves a hand. “Beautiful and popular. Their lives are sooo perfect.”

“I doubt everything in Jennifer’s life is perfect.” Larry gestures pointedly around the cabin. “Nobody’s life is perfect anymore.”

“Her parents are both still alive, aren’t they?” Tina mutters. “Yours and mine are dead.”

“That’s no reason to hate someone you barely know.”

“I don’t hate her…” Tina pouts, determined not to let him make her feel embarrassed by her attitude. Why can’t she just not want to talk to someone? “She rubs me the wrong way.” Larry still looks skeptical, so Tina finishes, “I’m a quick judge of character.”

“Well, don’t dismiss everyone you meet based on first impressions alone,” Larry cautions. “These days, we need all the friends we can get.”

After his conversation with Tina, Larry decides to visit Sean. Larry taps on the entrance of the storage shed and then peeks in to discover that Sean is alone.

“Hey, cousin,” he says, jolting Sean out of what looked like a fever-induced stupor. Larry keeps the grin glued on his face. “Where’s Fresler?”

“Taking another walk.” Sean chuckles weakly. “You watch, he’s going to be back to normal by tomorrow.”

“He’s wandering around by himself? Is that safe?” Larry glances out the shed door but can’t see Fresler’s red jacket anywhere in the white landscape.

“It’s his property,” Sean says with a shrug. “Come all the way inside, Larry. You’re letting the cold air in.”

It’s a poor excuse for a joke. The shed is already sub-freezing. Still, Larry steps inside and shuts the door behind him, adjusting his mask before he sits by Sean’s sleeping bag. “How are you holding up?”

Sean grimaces while he sits up and stretches his legs out. “I’ll be fine, I just need to get this infection under control.”

Larry frowns. “Has it spread?”

“A little.” Sean studies his bandages with a solemn expression that makes Larry feel like he swallowed a bag of rocks. “Fresler asked about my parents.”

“Really? What did you tell him?”

Sean looks up at the ceiling and shakes his head. “I couldn’t tell him the truth. I told him that Dad contracted the virus when he left the house to get us our respirator masks.”

Larry sets his jaw. “Good, they wouldn’t understand.” He purses his lips. “So, you made him out to be some sort of hero… That bastard doesn’t deserve to be remembered that way.”

Sean hugs his knees. “I agree with you. What he did was inexcusable. But… he didn’t deserve to die.”

“Neither did my parents,” Larry snaps back. “Your dad knew. He knew what was coming for years! And he never warned us. My parents could have prepared—like he did.” Larry grinds his teeth, ashamed for raising his voice at Sean but too mad at his uncle to keep the growl out of his words.

Sean looks at the ground. “You’re right. He should have warned them. If Dad had told me, I would have warned them, but he never told me… or Tina.”

“I know.” Larry wipes a hand down his bearded face, but it does little to compose him. “I can’t believe he built a hermetically sealed house and didn’t tell anyone why.”

“Yeah, well… the contractors who built it knew something was going on.” Sean lets out a mirthless laugh, and then winces in pain. “They came back with guns, after the outbreak.”

“You never told me how he knew.”

Larry had known about the “remodeling”. Sean’s father dished out a small fortune for six months before the outbreak, but he never would have guessed its purpose was anything other than vanity before the deaths started popping up on every form of media available.

“The CEO of Exxon and my dad were very close. The CEO was close friends with the Secretary of State. Powerful people tend to protect their own.”

Larry nods. “That’s the truth.” He hears footsteps approaching the shed. Judging by the slow, heavy gait, it’s Fresler. “I should go.”

“Don’t mention any of this to the group,” Sean whispers urgently.

Larry turns back. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

With an overflow of people and not enough kitchen chairs, dinner is served in the living room. The fried fish served with canned black beans and kale from the greenhouse is a hit, but Sharon is getting real sick of fish herself, no matter how she dresses it up. During the meal, she turns on the radio, in case there is a message from the CDC. She’s not expecting any new information, but the habit is hard to break.

Jackie sits next to Sharon and puts her hand on her forearm. “I wish Sean and Fresler could join us for dinner.”

“Me too,” Jennifer agrees quietly from her mom’s other side. “I feel so bad for them, stuck in that tiny, cold storage shed.”

Larry clears his throat. “Sean’s tough. He’s the bravest person I have ever known. He won’t let a little cold bother him.”

“Fresler’s from Norway,” Sharon says. “The cold is in his blood.”

They might as well be idly discussing the weather—pointless chatter to avoid emotional strain. No one expects Fresler or Sean to die of the cold …

An emergency alert siren blasts from the radio, cutting the chilly silence with sharp inhalations and a squeak from Tina.

“Turn up the volume!” John grabs the radio from Sharon. To her surprise, his eyes are enormous and shining with hope, though his mouth retains its usual stern line.

The message rattles out between static: “If you or someone you know is immune from the virus, please contact the CDC. We need to speak to any immune persons immediately, in an effort to continue our work on a vaccine. Their blood may be the key to developing a vaccine. To repeat, we are currently seeking any person who exhibits immunity to the virus. Please contact us immediately if you believe you or someone you know falls into this category.”

The man on the radio keeps speaking, giving details on how to use a ham radio to contact the CDC, or how to drive there by car if they’re near enough to reach Atlanta. Sharon takes the radio back from John and turns the volume down.

“How could anybody know if they were immune to the virus?” she asks her silent, shell-shocked companions. “How would you be able to tell if you’d contracted it in the first place? You’d just assume you hadn’t been exposed and move on with your life. Right?”

John nods as he lays his hand gently atop Jackie’s on the table. “Considering the fact that the only symptoms are a fever and congestion, which could just as easily be mistaken for a flu virus, I agree. I’ve no idea how anybody would know they’d caught the disease and then recovered. Besides, didn’t they announce that the fatality rate is hundred percent?”

Jackie nods. “One hundred percent,” she echoes.

“So how,” John says, almost to himself, “could anyone be immune?”

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