Chapter 7: Sick
I woke up to the sound of clucking chickens.
It was morning. My head was still so foggy from the sedatives I could hardly lift it to get a good look around.
I was in the chicken stall at the fairgrounds. The rows of cages were still filled with birds that had been entered into the now-abandoned fair. They were starving, and molting. Some were dead. I was covered in loose hay and feathers.
Somehow, I was still holding on to half of Morgan’s flannel shirt, my dad’s map, and Jason’s wallet. I forced myself to sit up.
I had no memory of making it as far as the fairgrounds before passing out. I was still naked. My bare feet were cut and covered in dried blood.
I opened Jason’s wallet.
I threw out a debit card and some kind of Home Guard mess hall card. And then there it was. A simple white card with a magnetic strip, the words “Pharmaceutical Access,” and a warning that finding it and not returning it to the Home Guard was a crime punishable by indefinite detention.
I kept the card and tossed Jason’s wallet into one of the chicken cages.
I felt inside the breast pocket of what was left of Morgan’s flannel. The single quarter I’d saved was still inside.
I crept from the chicken stall out into the sun. The morning was surprisingly warm after a cold night. The fairgrounds were totally abandoned, and for a moment I just let the sunlight fall onto my naked body. I was still feeling pretty woozy, but I could feel some of my energy starting to return.
I looked out toward the fields stretching away from the chicken stall. As far as I could see, Jason’s SUV was gone.
The fairgrounds, luckily, were filled with pay phones. The nearest was just across the roadway beside the horse stables.
I’d torn up Chris’s letter after memorizing his number, but I was able to clear the cobwebs from my head just enough to remember the digits as I deposited the quarter.
Chris picked up right away.
“Please tell me this is Ashley,” he said. He must not have recognized the incoming number and hoped it was a pay phone.
“I got it,” I said. I told him where I was and asked him to pick me up. “Bring me some clothes, will you?” I added. “Don’t ask. It’s a long story.”
While I waited for Chris, I found a relatively concealed place in the sun behind a wooden barrel that had been converted into a flowerpot. I listened to the horses in their stalls, whinnying loudly. Poor things. They probably hadn’t a heard a human voice for days, and they were probably starving.
A car approached.
I ducked down behind the flowerpot and peered over its arrangement of dead pansies.
A hearse, covered in dust, pulled up in front of the stables. It came to a stop by the pay phone. Its engine cut.
Chris stepped out. He was in a white Home Guard uniform and a lab coat with two armbands, one with a black HG logo and the other with a red cross.
Why was he driving a hearse?
“Don’t ask about the car and I won’t ask about the clothes,” Chris said, tossing a small duffel bag behind the flowerpot. It landed by my bloodied foot. I unzipped it.
“What else?” Chris looked away while I put on the faded blue hospital clothing he’d brought me.
I looked like a mental patient.
Now that I was clothed, Chris walked straight over and gave me a big hug. “You are fucking amazing, Ashley,” he said. “Fucking amazing!” he yelled out. “Let me see it.”
I gave him the access card.
“Fucking incredible.” He was elated. “I didn’t even think you’d get my note. How did you do it? Did you give him the sedative?”
“Sort of.” I shrugged. “Seriously, don’t ask.”
“Do you think he knows you took the card?”
“I think he knows his whole wallet’s missing.”
“Shit,” Chris said. “We don’t have much time then. Let’s go.”
“Just a minute.”
I hurried into the stables. Thirty or forty horses, all in their own stalls, pranced and snorted when I came in. They weren’t in as bad shape as the chickens, but they’d eaten through all of their feed, not to mention all of the hay on the stable floor. The water in their shared trough was down to a muddy puddle.
I turned on the trough faucet and started emptying sacks of oats into the feeding bins.
“Seriously?” Chris called out when he saw what I was doing. “We seriously don’t have time for this. We have to go!”
“You’ll thank me later,” I said. “I promise.”
When all of the horses had been fed and the trough was full, I turned off the water and got into the hearse with Chris. I was glad to see it wasn’t carrying a coffin. The engine was already running. As soon as I closed the door, Chris put the clutch in gear and sped forward.
“Can I really not ask about the hearse?” I asked.
Chris shrugged. “Well, it’s the best way not to get stopped and searched at a check point,” he explained. “Most of the rangers on guard duty are the young ones, and they’re all freaked out by coffins with people inside screaming to be let out. Understandably. They’d rather just pretend this kind of thing isn’t happening. So most of the guards just wave hearses through.”
I tried not to think about how many people must have been buried alive right then.
Chris pulled out onto the highway and headed straight toward the center of town. One Home Guard squad was standing around a fire in the supermarket parking lot, warming ration packets on the flames, but they didn’t pay us any attention.
“I just really hope this uniform passes at the pharmacy.” Chris patted the HG logo on his armband. “I’m on the wanted list, but I’m hoping they won’t pay much attention to me if I’m wearing my old stuff.” He took a deep breath. I didn’t realize until now how scared he was. “We’ll see” he said, exhaling. “Fingers crossed.”
I hadn’t expected that actually getting in would be a problem once we had the access card. Somehow, stupidly, I’d imagined that Chris would be able to just swipe the card, waltz right in, and take whatever he needed.
“Is the pharmacy pretty well guarded?” I asked.
Chris laughed hollowly. “Even with that steel door they put in, they’ve started stationing an entire squad there. All kinds of meds are in short supply, from ibuprofen to chemo agents to TGV test applicators. And the Home Guard really doesn’t want people getting their hands on any antibiotics.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Isn’t the whole purpose of the Home Guard’s existence to eradicate the pathogen in the quarantine zone? Shouldn’t they want people to have access to antibiotics if it fights the disease?”
“Not when the cocktail doesn’t actually weaken the parasite.” Chris glanced at me sardonically. “Guess we didn’t tell you that little detail, did we? When I was testing the cocktail months ago on earlier strains, before we really knew what this thing was, we found out that it actually strengthens the parasite. It ends up selecting for stronger, longer-living larvae as the species adapts and becomes resistant to the antibiotics. It becomes a superbug. The longer the parasite lives, the longer the host stays viable, and the slower the disease’s stages progress. With the right antibiotics, you could keep people in stage one for months, maybe even longer, someday. But that would mean giving the host a longer period of time to spread the pathogen on to someone else. The Home Guard just wants to wipe the whole thing out.”
“That’s why they’re only really interested in shooting people? Or burying them alive?” Suddenly I understood. “They don’t care about curing anyone.”
“There is no cure,” Chris said somberly. “You can slow the disease, but only by strengthening it. You can’t cure it, ever.”
He reached into the back of the hearse and handed me a shotgun.
“It’s all I have,” he said. “I hope you won’t need it, but keep the safety off.”
I noticed Chris was wearing his pistol under his lab coat. I held the shotgun low and kept it pointed at the floor.
Chris hadn’t been kidding about the guards at the pharmacy.
An entire squad of six rangers, complete with a large armored vehicle, was stationed at the entrance. It was hard to imagine this was the same place my mom used to buy me cough syrup when I was a kid.
Before we even began to slow down, the squad’s sergeant, a stout, brawny guy I’d never seen before, waved at us to stop.
So much for Chris’s hearse strategy.
He pulled over on the opposite side of the road and parked beside the Bronze Dragon, Muldoon’s single Chinese food restaurant. Both the restaurant and the apartment above were now abandoned.
“Papers?” the sergeant called out.
None of the rangers seemed too concerned about us. Most of them were leaning against the armored vehicle, looking bored, their guns slung over their shoulders. They stirred only to push forward a very young private, obviously new to the squad, to examine our papers.
“This one’s all yours.” One of the rangers nudged the private forward with his boot on his backside. “A girl and a fairy. You can handle it.”
“Get her number,” another ranger said mockingly. “Hers, not his.”
All of the rangers laughed. The young private nervously crossed the road to approach us and examine our papers.
The problem was, of course, not only did neither of us have travel clearance, both of us were wanted. We had a pharmacy access card, but what good was that going to do if we didn’t have any clearance papers? Obviously, Chris hadn’t anticipated this.
“Fuck,” he whispered, eyeing the approaching private. He had no idea what to do. He leaned back and put his hand on his head, helpless.
I had to do something.
I reached into his lab coat and grabbed his pistol.
“What are you—?” Chris began, startled. “Ashley!”
I tucked the pistol into the back of the scrubs I was wearing and got out of the hearse. I walked directly toward the private.
I wasn’t even sure what I was doing. I wasn’t even wearing shoes. But suddenly I was overcome by another weird rush of what felt like limitless confidence. The fog from my sedative hangover cleared away. I had no idea where these spikes of nerve were coming from, but when they hit me I was strangely, recklessly, without any fear at all.
The private was very young. I met him in the middle of the road. We stopped on opposite sides of the road’s yellow line. He couldn’t have been a day over eighteen. He was gawky, with a plump, pink zit on his cheek. He was obviously nervous.
“Your papers, ma’am?” he asked politely, avoiding my gaze.
I thought about Morgan. I thought about the young girl with the vacant green eyes who had passed me on the highway.
“What would you do to me, Private,” I asked quietly, “if I was positive?”
“Just your travel papers ma’am,” he mumbled. “Then you can be on your way.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said. “What would you do?”
The private’s face was flushing deeply now. I was staring right at him, practically breathing on him, and he still refused to meet my eyes.
“My sergeant’s orders are to shoot any known or suspected positives on sight,” he recited.
“Shit, Gomer! I think she’s kind of into you!” one of the rangers called out. “Work your Gomer magic! Maybe you’ll get a hand job out of it!”
The squad laughed.
“I didn’t ask you what your orders are,” I said softly. “This is a test, Gomer. Your answer’s important. What would you do if I was positive?”
“Yes, ma’am. I would shoot you,” he said briskly, as if speaking to a superior officer.
“You sure about that?” I asked. “Is that your final answer?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he stammered.
“Do you know what I’m going to do?” I whispered.
“Show me your travel papers? Ma’am?”
“No. I’m going to shoot you. Right in the chest.” I gently tapped his chest. “Not because I have any orders. But because it’s just the right thing to do.”
The private stared at me dumbly.
I pulled Chris’s pistol from my scrubs, jammed it into the private’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot exploded across the quiet street. The private stumbled backwards, gasping, tugging at his bulletproof vest. As quickly as I could, I pulled the semi-automatic rifle from his shoulder and started firing at the squad.
None of the rangers expected this. Their faces fell as they scrambled to shoulder their guns and take a position behind the armored vehicle.
I didn’t expect the private’s rifle to be so powerful. Every time I pulled the trigger, the stock leapt up and bit painfully into my shoulder. All of my shots sailed way too high as a result, but it was enough to scare the squad and buy a little time.
I raced back to the hearse.
Chris was baffled and terrified. “What the fuck, Ashley!” he kept saying. “What the fuck!”
I pulled him behind the hearse. Luckily, Chris had the presence of mind to grab the shotgun. As soon as we hit the ground, a barrage of bullets slammed into the hearse’s body and shattered its windows.
When the first volley let up, I fired back. I couldn’t even begin to hope to hit any of the rangers with the unwieldy weapon. I just wanted to give us enough cover to fall back into the Bronze Dragon. I pulled Chris with me, fired one shot into the restaurant’s glass front door, and we both ran through the frame and took cover behind the register stand.
Another volley of bullets shattered the front windows.
“What the fuck are you doing!” Chris was incensed.
“Making it up as I go!” I shouted back. “What the fuck are you doing? Let me fucking know if you have any better ideas.”
I slipped back into the restaurant kitchen, dragging Chris after me.
A stairway lead to the second-story apartment. I scrambled up and found the living room, which looked over the street.
I could see the rangers trying to position themselves. They were still in confusion after the unexpected attack. I’d caught them totally off guard. I doubt they’d ever been attacked before. The young private I’d shot in the chest was still squirming in the road. I’d fired the pistol so close to his vest, I’d probably broken most of his ribs.
I grabbed Chris’s shotgun.
“Give me this.”
I stepped back from the window and took aim directly at the squad’s brawny sergeant. He was still standing across the road, exposed in front of the armored vehicle, waving at his men to take positions.
The living room window exploded into thousands of tiny shards. The sergeant fell backwards.
I knew the shot wouldn’t kill the brawny sergeant. But I’d been duck hunting with my Dad enough to know that the spread of the shell’s pellets at this distance would be wide enough to pepper him from head to foot. The sergeant tried to pull himself to his feet. Already I could see that he was bleeding from his arms and his face.
I fired again. This time I hit one of the rangers side-on. A concentration of pellets ripped into his elbow. He cried out and clutched at his arm. Blood fell and splashed onto the pavement like spilled coffee.
I could see the wounded sergeant calling out to his men to fall back into the armored vehicles. A couple of rangers ran out into the road and dragged the fallen private, who looked like he’d lost consciousness. I didn’t fire. The squad knew they’d been outmaneuvered. They couldn’t stay in the street while I was in an upstairs window with plenty of ammunition. They all scrambled into the vehicle. Then they sped away.
But I knew that many, many reinforcements were bound to arrive in minutes.
For now, though, the pharmacy was totally unguarded.
“Let’s go,” I said to Chris. “We have to hurry.”
We raced downstairs and across the street. The electronic metal door that the Home Guard had installed at the pharmacy had a simple card scanner, just like an ATM machine. Chris slid in Jason’s access card and jerked it out. The door instantly opened.
We rushed inside.
I drew my pistol.
I don’t know what I expected to find, but the pharmacy looked basically like it had always looked before the quarantine. Tim Huckabee was even behind the counter, the only pharmacist I ever remembered working there. He had to be at least in his seventies. The only difference now was that he was wearing a white Home Guard medical uniform a lot like Chris’s.
He didn’t even recognize me. But I doubt I would have recognized myself. I probably looked absolutely insane climbing up on top of the counter in scrubs and with bare, scratched feet, waving a pistol in his face.
I had no idea what I was doing. All I could think about was every bank robbery I’d ever seen in a movie. The robbers almost always jumped up on top of the counter and started screaming aggressive orders.
What else was I supposed to do?
“Antibiotics and TGV tests!” I screamed. “Where the fuck are they?”
Tim Huckabee went pale. He held his hands up and backed into a case of vitamin bottles, toppling half of them on to the floor. He looking like he thought I was going to shoot him any second.
“Ashley!” Chris said. “They’re here! I know where the antibiotics are kept!” He was already in the back of the pharmacy, stuffing plastic shopping bags with boxes of antibiotics and other medications.
I jammed the pistol into Tim Huckabee’s face. He whimpered.
“Test applicators!” I yelled. “Where are the test applicators?”
He gingerly pointed a gnarled, arthritic finger at a safe beneath the register.
“Open it!” I screamed, pressing the pistol’s barrel against his cheek.
He sobbed. Then he bent over and threw up. I felt splashes of vomit reach my bare feet.
Then he fell forward and passed out cold.
Shit. I’d overdone it.
“You have to chill out, Ashley,” Chris called from behind my shoulder.
I nudged Tim Huckabee’s limp body with my foot.
There was no way he was going to revive in time to open the safe.
I looked at Chris. “Now what?”
“Well, I have a fucking lifetime supply of contraband antibiotics.” He was holding at least ten plastic bags, each stuffed to bursting. “So not bad. And I found one TGV Insta-Read test.” He tossed me the test, still wrapped in plastic. “That’ll have to be good enough for now. Let’s not press our luck.”
I took half of the plastic bags from Chris as we hurried from the pharmacy and back out onto the street.
Sirens were blaring in the distance. The Home Guard was on its way.
The hearse was riddled with bullet holes. Both of the front tires were flat. Gas was leaking away onto the pavement.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” Chris was panicking.
The sirens were growing louder.
“It’s better we’re not in the hearse anyway,” I said, which was actually probably true. “We’d just stand out. Follow me.”
I hurried into the back alleyway behind the Bronze Dragon. My bare feet, already lacerated, were practically completely raw, but I tried to ignore the pain as I stepped around trash and broken bottles.
“Where are you hiding the refugees?” I asked Chris, trying to figure out what to do next.
“With the Underground,” he said. “Which means they’re all over the place. They’re with people who are secretly sympathetic, and willing to resist the Home Guard. They’re in basements and attics all over the quarantine zone. But it won’t last long. No one’s willing to shelter anyone for more than a few days. Everyone’s afraid of the Home Guard cracking down. They’re starting to search properties. A few of the refugees are with your boss, actually. Your old boss.”
“Bill’s sheltering refugees?”
This actually didn’t surprise me. My boss at the trucking company, Bill Hernandez, lived outside of town on an acre of land at the foothills of the mountains. He definitely wasn’t the type to sympathize with the Home Guard’s tactics. His place was maybe four or five miles away.
“Bill actually kind of started the whole thing,” Chris said.
“His place is good enough for me.” I picked up my pace while we made our way from the alleyway to the back of the high school.
“If that’s where we’re going, we’re going the wrong way,” Chris stopped. “You know that right?”
But I didn’t stop trotting through the empty lot behind the high school baseball field. The sirens had grown even louder. The Home Guard had probably reached the pharmacy by now. I didn’t think anyone was following us, but we had to move fast. Chris jogged to catch up. I could see the abandoned carnival rides rising up just beyond the high school.
“Just follow me,” I said.
By the time we reached the fairgrounds, I couldn’t hear the sirens anymore.
When I opened the door to the stables, the horses started whinnying and prancing. Now that they’d been watered and fed, they were full of energy and wanted to get out of the stalls they’d been stuck standing in for almost two weeks.
I found Kaypay, my sister’s horse, near the end of one of the stable rows. I rubbed my hand along her nose.
“Ready to go for a ride?” I whispered.
The horse stamped her hooves.
“I don’t know how to ride a horse,” Chris said.
“You don’t have to know how. You just have to hang on.”
I lead Kaypay and seven other horses out of their stalls and tethered them all together with a long rope. I could only find five dusty saddles in the tack room, but I brushed them off and put them on the five lead horses. I secured the bags of antibiotics to one, and helped Chris climb atop another.
I climbed onto Kaypay in the front of the line and tapped her sides with my bare heels.
“Don’t fall off,” I called back to Chris.
Kaypay wanted to trot, but I kept her from going too fast. With all of the horses tethered together, we’d have to take it slow.
I lead the procession through the fairgrounds and toward the fields in the back. There was a dirt road that lead all the way through the fields to the foothills of the Rockies. By following it, I was pretty sure I’d be able to find Bill Hernandez’s house while still avoiding all the main roads where the Home Guard would be patrolling.
We reached Bill’s place in just over an hour.
Bill’s property was filled with big rigs. They all must have been out of operation since the quarantine began. There was also a big warehouse-style motor shop at the head of the driveway, and behind it was the house.
Bill was really happy to see me. He came out in the felt cowboy hat he always wore, smiling, holding his arms open. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about Bill much since everything had happened, but he had always been a good boss, and we’d always gotten along. He gave me a big hug when I slid off the horse.
“Ashley!” He looked me over. “My oh my! I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again. Chris told me you were missing, and it just about broke my heart. Thank God you’re okay.”
“We brought goodies.” Chris started untying the plastic bags filled with antibiotics from the saddle.
“You’re kidding me!” Bill smiled, smoothing his mustache. “Is that what I think it is? So much! How the hell’d you get all that?”
“Illegally,” Chris laughed. “Very illegally.”
“My oh my.”
“You have Ashley to thank for all this. All of it.”
Bill smiled at me. “Well, somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
I was actually feeling a little bit good for the first time in a very long time.
While Bill helped us hide the horses in the motor shop, Chris told me that it was actually Bill who first started calling the resistance the Underground.
“After that,” Chris explained, “people who needed help started showing up. Bill was the one who started feeling other people out who might be willing to shelter positives from the Home Guard. He’s been able to find—what? Five or six households now?”
Bill nodded. “They’re good people. But they sure are scared. The Home Guard’s getting more and more nosey.”
“Bill won’t say who’s doing the sheltering,” Chris explained. “He won’t even tell me. But it’s probably not a bad idea to keep it all as secret as possible.”
After securing the horses, we shut the motor shop’s large double doors and Bill led us to the house.
“Come and have some lunch,” he said. “You two must be starving.”
Nothing could have been truer. I was famished.
I couldn’t believe it, but Bill actually made us steaks. Nothing had ever tasted better in my life.
While we ate, I told Bill about the cliff dwellings that my dad and I had discovered years ago. It was the first time I’d ever spoken about them with anybody but my Dad.
“I can’t imagine a safer place to shelter refugees,” I said. “It won’t be easy getting provisions out there, and the weather’s going to get cold, but if we can make it work, it would be almost impossible for the Home Guard to find a hideout like that for a long time.”
“Well, sounds like it’s better than anything else we got now.” Bill offered me a second steak. “You sure you can find it?”
I nodded. “I’m sure. It might take two or three days on horseback, but I can find it. My dad marked it on a topo map for me. And I’m going. I’ve decided. Any of the refugees who are willing to make the journey can come.”
After lunch, Bill virtually emptied his pantry, filling duffel bags and suitcases with rice and beans and canned food. He gave me four sleeping bags and rolled up another eight or nine blankets from his closet. He even insisted we take every box of shotgun shells he owned. We secured all of these provisions and tied them under tarps onto three of the horse’s backs.
“This won’t last long,” Bill said. “We’ll work on getting more provisions soon.”
Then he shut himself away in a cluttered spare room to call all of the members of the Underground who were sheltering positives, asking them to pass word to the refugees to gather at his house if they wanted to go with me to hide in a remote location.
“Tell them that if they want to come, it’s going to be rough out there,” I said, before Bill closed the door. “No electricity, running water. None of that. We’ll have shelter and plenty of antibiotics, at least. But they’ll have to be blindfolded on the way out. Tell them that.”
Bill nodded. “That’s probably a good idea. I understand the blindfolds. I’ll tell them. And it’ll be their choice whether to go.”
He shut the door and started making the calls.
Chris had emptied all of the boxes of antibiotics onto Bill’s kitchen table. He had taken many of the pills from the foil trays, sorted them in piles, and now he was using a mortar and pestle to grind and mix them.
“Next step is measuring out the doses and filling the capsules with the powder,” he explained. He brushed off his hands. “But first let me have a look at those feet.”
I sat at the table beside Chris. “Bill said he’d ask one of the Undergrounders to bring me a pair of boots,” I said. “I guess one of them has feet close to my size.”
“You really tore them up, didn’t you? How did you lose your shoes?”
I didn’t answer.
“Right,” he said. “Don’t ask. Fine.”
He pulled my feet onto his lap. They were filthy. Most of the dried blood had worn off, but now all of the cuts were filled with dirt and grime. Chris started washing the cuts out with a disinfectant pad. I winced whenever he cleaned out a particularly deep cut.
“So what about you? Are you coming to the cliff dwellings?” I asked.
Chris shrugged. “Where else am I going to go? After that crazy shit we pulled at the pharmacy today, you and me are probably at the top of the Home Guard’s most-wanted list. I can’t stick around here. I guess you’ll have to give me horseback lessons.”
I was relieved to hear this. I didn’t want to have the responsibility of bringing a whole group of infected refugees way out to the middle of nowhere alone.
“Normally this wouldn’t be any of my business,” Chris said quietly. “But is it true that you, uh, slept with Bryce Tripp . . . ?”
I didn’t blame Chris for worrying that I might be infected. If he was going to be holed up with me way out there in the ruins for who knew how long, he had the right to know what he was getting into. He also needed to know if he’d need to start me on the antibiotic cocktail.
“Yes,” I said simply. “I slept with him. But I didn’t let him… You know. I don’t think I let anything get inside me.”
Chris nodded. He didn’t look up from my feet. He opened a plastic bandage and pressed it over one of the larger cuts.
“I know I can’t know for sure,” I added. I was trying to sound brave, or at least detached and clinical about the possibility of my being sick. “But I guess I’ll just have to wait. It’s been two days since then.”
Chris nodded again. “How do you feel?”
“Well, I’m not dead yet.” I tried to laugh. “I feel pretty good. Great actually.”
It was true. Ever since the firefight with the Home Guard, I wasn’t even feeling foggy from the sedative hangover.
“That’s good.” Chris patted my foot. He’d finished cleaning out the cuts. He set my feet back down onto the floor. “Most people die within twenty-four hours of becoming infected. Some have lasted as many as three days, but it’s rare. Never longer than that, though.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Good to know.”
I’d been hoping he was going to tell me I was out of the clear after two days, but I’d just have to wait another twenty-four hours before I could know for sure that I wasn’t infected.
Chris asked, “Do you still have that Insta-Read test I gave you at the pharmacy?”
It was still in the pocket of the scrubs I was wearing.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Why don’t you maybe go test yourself?”
“I don’t want to waste it,” I said. “I’ll know I’m negative if I last another day anyway, won’t I? We might need it later. It’s our only one. And, honestly, I don’t even feel sick at all.”
“You’d be better off knowing for sure, though. Right? Just in case?”
I thought about this, but I shook my head. “No. Really,” I said. “By this point it’s unlikely I’m sick. And if I am, there’s nothing I can do about it. Besides, we might need the Insta-Read later if we need to find out if one of the refugees has progressed to the next stage.”
“It’s up to you,” Chris said.
He went back to filling the pill capsules, and he didn’t press me any further. I was pretty sure now I wasn’t sick, but if Chris was concerned, I couldn’t help worrying a little.
A total of nine refugees showed up at Bill’s house, some on foot, others in trunks of cars that sped straight away after dropping them off. This number included a young couple with an infant, the three of whom Bill had been hiding in his hunting shack.
My third grade teacher, who had come to the granary, was nowhere to be seen. But the Botteroffs were there, quietly hanging on to one another, waiting for instruction. The rest were kids, two girls and two guys, I guessed ranging in age from sixteen to twenty. I didn’t recognize any of them. They looked like maybe they’d been dumped into the quarantine zone from some Denver suburb.
Right away Chris distributed sandwich bags filled with antibiotics.
“Three times a day,” he told everyone. “Don’t forget. You’re going to feel fatigued. There’s no way around that. And many of you will experience unusually vivid dreams. But for now, this is the only way we know how to slow the progression of the disease.”
Everyone eyed the pills warily, but I didn’t see anyone who chose not to take one. None of the refugees looked like they were any later than stage two, and they were obviously terrified of moving on to stage three.
My plan was to ride through the night. Judging by my dad’s map, I thought we’d be able to reach the ruins by sunset the next day, if we left right away. We couldn’t afford to wait around. Bill said the Home Guard always arrived at his place in the evening on residential patrol, and it was already late afternoon.
I kept the horses tethered together, put people two to a horse, and told them basically to hold on tight. Nobody was happy when I passed around the blindfolds, but Bill gave a little speech and insisted that it was necessary to protect the secrecy of the hideout.
He handed me a pair of hiking boots, only one size too big, and hugged me.
“Good luck, Ashley. Thank you. You’re a saint.”
“Let’s hope this works out,” I said.
Chris and I shared Kaypay. I helped him up onto the saddle.
“We’re going to try to come back in a week or so,” Chris told Bill. “Get the word out that we’re sheltering positives. Anyone willing to wear a blindfold on the trip out is welcome.”
“I will,” Bill said. “I’ll have a fresh stock of provisions. You can count on it.”
I nudged Kaypay with my heels. Chris held on tight behind me. The entire progression of horses, connected by a single rope and loaded with provisions, gear, and mounted refugees, followed Kaypay’s lead. I waved goodbye to Bill, and we headed toward the mountains.
The beginning of the journey was relatively easy. The trails weren’t very steep yet and no one had gotten saddle sore. Everyone had accepted the necessity of the blindfolds, and people fell into their own thoughts as they swayed atop the horses. Few of the refugees said much of anything. Even the baby was quiet.
When the sun set, it was much harder to navigate in the dark than I’d thought. We reached what was marked as Pines Bluff on my dad’s map after two in the morning. From there, we’d need to climb up a steep, winding incline. Chris and I decided to stop and let everyone sleep until dawn. No one complained. Everyone was sore and exhausted, but there had also been a release of tension as we moved farther into the mountains. The refugees had been living in constant fear of being discovered by the Home Guard, and now at least people were starting to feel safe.
I woke everyone up at first light. After rolling up my blanket, I made my way into a ravine to pee.
As I squatted behind a rock, I felt the Insta-Read test in my front pocket.
It had been bothering me that Chris had wanted me to test myself. I was now basically certain that I hadn’t contracted the pathogen, but Chris’s suggestion had planted a doubt that had been nagging me all night.
I succumbed to the temptation and opened the Insta-Read package. If I tested myself now, at least I’d know for sure that I wasn’t sick, I could stop being pre-occupied by the nagging worry, and I could concentrate on finding the cliff dwellings. Besides, all of the refugees already knew they were positive, and Chris already knew he wasn’t. I was the only one who wasn’t sure.
The applicator was exactly the same as the one Morgan had used. The same simple instructions for interpreting the results were printed on the plastic.
I clicked the button, and the applicator needle shot out. I started to pee. I reached between my legs and held the tip into my stream of urine.
I set the Insta-Read on a rock to wait for the result while a pulled up my scrubs and tied the strings at the waist.
The result appeared almost immediately.
Three blue lines: “Stage 3 TGV”
Something was wrong. It had to be a faulty applicator. Even if I was infected, there was no way I could be at stage three.
Still, was I infected? I’d hoped to set my mind at ease by seeing once and for all that I wasn’t. But the circle labeled “TGV negative” definitely had not turned blue. Now I was even more uncertain than I was before.
I put the Insta-Read back in its wrapper and slipped it into my pocket.
Chris had already gotten all of the refugees onto their horses and made them put their blindfolds on. Everyone was already waiting for me.
I pulled myself onto the saddle behind Chris. My heart was pounding.
When we started moving up the trail, I reached around Chris and handed him the applicator.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “It’s broken, right?”
Chris took the Insta-Read. He read it.
For a moment he said nothing. Then he shook his head and sighed.
“I was afraid of something like this,” he whispered. “I didn’t expect stage three, but I was afraid of this. Oh my God, Ashley. I’m so sorry.”
“What do you mean?” I whispered back. “Something’s wrong with it. Something has to be wrong with it. Even if I was infected, there’s no way I could be stage three. It’s broken. It has to be. Right?”
“These don’t break,” Chris said. He was being so uncharacteristically patient with me, it was frightening. “It doesn’t work like that,” he explained. “These applicators test for a protein that’s unique to the TGV bacteria. It’s physically impossible for the blue lines to appear without the presence of that protein.”
“You’re wrong,” I insisted. I couldn’t believe how certain Chris seemed when I was so obviously not anywhere near the state of a stage-three positive. “Chris,” I said. “I never died! Don’t you think I’d fucking remember something like that? Dying? I never even got sick! How could I be stage three if I’m still alive?”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Am I sure about not having died? Yes, I’m pretty fucking sure about that.”
“Seriously, Ashley. Are you sure?”
Chris turned around in the saddle to face me, then he put his hand on my forehead.
“What are you doing?”
“I was suspicious that something might be up when I disinfected your feet. You were warm, Ashley. Positives run a slightly high temperature. About a hundred and one degrees. I felt it in your feet. And, yes, I can feel your temperature now. It’s high.” He pulled his hand from my forehead and turned back around. “So are you sure you didn’t die?” he whispered. “Are you absolutely sure you never woke up filled with energy and in an unusual state of elevated confidence? Are you sure that never happened? I bet you’ve even been craving milk protein and high-caloric foods, haven’t you . . . ?”
“Oh my God.”
I’d suddenly remembered the motel room.
I’d woken up after a night of extremely heavy drinking, but feeling great. I remembered feeling like I could race up a cliff.
“Oh my God,” I said again.
Had I died that night? Was it possible? Had I been too drunk to notice?
“That night,” I whispered.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d slept with Bryce two days ago,” I confessed. “The first time I slept with him was the first night of the fair. The night everything happened. but I don’t remember anything. I have no idea if we even used a condom. And when I woke up late the next day, I felt, well . . . really amazing.” I let my head fall against Chris’s back. “Oh my God. Chris? Am I dead?”
He turned around to look at me.
“I think you must have . . . died, that night.” He shook his head in amazement. “That must have been when it happened. You must have contracted the pathogen from Bryce, then passed out from alcohol. You didn’t even know it happened. You must have fallen into a coma, died there in the motel bed, then woke up thinking you’d just had a heavy night of drinking.”
“But how is that possible?” I was still totally confused. I didn’t want to believe any of this. “I’m not walking around like some kind of fucking zombie!” It was getting hard to keep my voice low enough that the refugees wouldn’t hear me. “I’m here! I’m me! If anything, I should be only stage one? Right?”
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Chris said. “If you drew three blue lines, your blood has to be more than half honey at this point. I thought something was up with you yesterday, the way you confronted that ranger kid and shot him like that. The pathogen is affecting your behavior, obviously. It’s turning on your genes for confidence, and even pleasure. I can tell. It’s doing everything it can to make you more sexually attractive and sexually active both. And, honestly, now I understand why I’ve been so fucking turned on by you ever since picking you up at the fairgrounds. It’s been killing me. Seriously. I haven’t even been able to think straight. And now I get it. Now I know why.”
“You didn’t assume it was just my natural sexual charm?” I couldn’t believe I was joking.
Chris let himself laugh. “Well yeah,” he said. “Your natural sexual charm, and the fact that your pores are oozing with pheromones.”
Even knowing I was dead, I felt strangely indifferent about it. Ever since robbing the pharmacy, I was feeling oddly invincible. It was true. The pathogen must have been giving me some weird natural high. But the disease seemed to be affecting me differently than other people. Maybe I was dead, but I wasn’t deteriorating.
“So maybe I have little more confidence,” I said. “Fine. But how come I’m not like Morgan was, at the end? I don’t understand.”
“Honestly,” Chris said, “I don’t understand either. Maybe you have some kind of different pathogen strain. I’d love to give you a blood test, but it’s not like that’s going to fucking happen any time soon, way out here. So I have no idea why. But, Ashley, you’re definitely infected. I have no doubt about it.”
I thought about this. It was strange that I wasn’t more concerned. Truthfully, I was glad I wasn’t more concerned.
“Do you think this could last?” I whispered. “Is it possible I could just go on like this? Like maybe the disease is somehow different for me?”
“I have no idea,” he said. “I sure hope so. But I have no way of knowing.”
We reached the ravine just before sunset.
The cliff dwellings were even more extensive than I’d remembered, and they looked beautiful as we approached them in the evening light. The low sun brought out the stone’s natural orange hue, and the rock walls glowed.
I told all of the refugees they could take off their blindfolds.
It was a perfect place to hide away. The ravine was narrow, but formed on the north side by a large overhanging cliff. The dwellings, ancient buildings, most of them still intact, were formed by a series of sturdy sandstone walls. Some of the structures were three stories high, reaching all the way to the ceiling of the hanging cliff. Ever since exploring this place with my dad as a kid, I remembered walking through the complex’s interconnected passageways and looking out the stone windows. There must have been thirty or forty rooms in all, plenty of space for everyone. There was even a freshwater spring at the base of the ravine.
I remembered that my dad told me the people who had built the dwellings, the Anasazi Native Americans, had been hiding out from an aggressively warlike rival group. We couldn’t have hoped for a better hiding place. Because of the cliff, the structures weren’t even visible from the air. And because my dad had kept the place a secret, it still hadn’t ever appeared on any maps. We were the only ones who knew about it. As long as word didn’t get out, the Home Guard would need to search for months, years even, before tracking us here.
“Well, here’s our Hole in the Wall,” Chris said, slipping off the saddle.
The refugees began exploring the dwellings. People were actually laughing with one another as they walked from room to room, sounding hopeful for once.
I took Kaypay and the rest of the horses to the spring and watered them in the last of the evening light.
There was a round dugout at the center of the dwelling complex that must have been for storing food once, but we used it as a place to light a fire and heat up our ration packs. Chris made the rounds passing out another dose of antibiotics.
But I didn’t take any.
I’d decided to wait and see how my condition progressed. I tried not to think too much about it, but I couldn’t help it.
I excused myself early from the fire and took my blanket to the small stone room I’d claimed for myself. I needed to be alone for a little while.
I was terrified at what it meant to be infected, and what it meant to be dead. And yet I felt alive. I even felt a little good about how things were going. I’d managed, with Chris’s help, to get a group of refugees a supply of antibiotics and a safe place to stay, for now anyway. Of course, we still had a lot to do. More refugees would come, we had to figure out a way to get a steady supply of provisions, and winter was on its way.
But I’d accomplished something. And if the pathogen that was nesting in my brain was busy turning on genes that were giving me the confidence to help all of these people, then what did it matter if I was dead or alive? What was the difference which of my genes were turned off or on, if they all belonged to me anyway? Maybe the pathogen was part of me now too.
The stars gleamed outside the stone window.
I couldn’t help it. I started to think about Ian.
I couldn’t help but hope that I’d see him again, somehow, somewhere, however naïve and unrealistic it was that he’d ever forgive me. I’d been trying so hard not to think about him all this time, and now not thinking about him was just too much to bear. It was impossible not to wish that he was with me as I lay there alone in the darkness. It wasn’t right to wish for that. It wasn’t fair to my sister, or even to Ian. I know it wasn’t. But it’s what I felt, and I couldn’t change it.
However the pathogen may have been affecting my thoughts, they were still my thoughts. All of my yearning and regrets and actions were still me.
I may even have been dead, but I was still me.
And whatever I was about to think, or feel, or do next in my life, I was okay with that. I had to be.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Adrian_BirchWrite a Review