“Ava… Ava! It’s time to wake up”.
As the soft voice delicately wakes me, I almost forget for a brief moment that everything has changed. If only I could stay longer in the comfort of my bed or have a nice breakfast on the terrace while carelessly listening to the waves crashing against the shore. Sometimes I wonder if things will ever be as they were, before the outbreak — probably not. “Ava,” Abbie calls out in a firmer tone. “I’m awake Abbie,” I respond with a slightly irritated voice.
I walk towards the kitchen and guide myself in the dark with the help of my Mediaband’s back light. It’s still dark outside but I don’t turn the lights on — I never do. I wouldn’t want to attract them to my house. I’ve managed to stay out of danger for almost 6 months now and of all days, today is certainly not the time to attract a pack. My body violently shivers as I think of them. I verify my food rations and count the water bottles, then put them in my dry pack along with two compact redundant air systems. This should be enough food and water for 4 days. I carefully close the pack and secure my 10” serrated dive knife to my waist band. It probably won’t do me any good but it’s the only weapon I have. Better than nothing I suppose. As I slip into my black shoes, that perfectly match with my tight black pants and long sleeve top, I nervously break into laughter, thinking that I look like a spy movie heroine. With one hand I grab the pack from the counter top and throw it over my shoulder. Its weight slightly throws me off balance and makes me wonder how fast I’ll be able to run with it on my back.
“Abbie, please put the house on standby”. The ventilation system, water collector and appliances successively shutdown. As I carefully exit the house I look back and for once take the time to admire my dad’s design. This was one of his pet projects. Not bad for an engineer; the house, perched on the side of a cliff with full glass walls provide a panoramic view of the Ocean. It’s as if it’s blended in the rock, isolated from the rest of the world.
Outside, the faint moonlight is perfect, it will be just enough to guide us in the night and steer us away from danger. I hesitantly walk up the driveway towards the street and look in every direction making sure the path is clear and void of those things, like a child in the dark steering away from imaginary monsters. The street is now in sight – all seems clear. Then out of nowhere a shadow suddenly emerges in front of me, startling me beyond imagination. My body paralyzes for an instant which prevents me from screaming aloud. Fortunately, it’s only Noah. This is our rendezvous point. I look at him in disbelief, piercing him with my eyes. He shrugs and looks genuinely confused behind his face mask that covers his nose and mouth. He obviously didn’t mean to scare me – this time. Hard to blame me, he always used to make me jump when we were kids. Probably his way of showing that he cared. It’s unfortunate that we got reunited in such circumstances. I can still remember our summer vacations here by the beach. His parents would always come here to their vacation home with Noah and his older sister. But just before the outbreak it was the first time I had seen him in years. In search of adventures and new experiences, as always, he had decided to study abroad. I was infuriated when he first announced it. I was losing a friend, the person I was closest to.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Noah says with a muffled voice. I nod and break off the conversation in fear of attracting them with any noise we make. It’s time. There’s no turning back, it’s a matter of survival. We look at one another and start walking on the street. My heart races and I increasingly feel a tingling sensation in my hands but I press on and make sure Noah doesn’t see the fear in my eyes. It’s the first time we venture out like this since they took over the city and region. Initially the Unified Health Organization thought it was a Flu pandemic. Symptoms were similar: severe headaches and body aches, nausea, vomiting, and fever in some cases. But after some time, affected patients started showing additional symptoms: memory loss, vision impairment, and a highly aggressive behavior. Well, that’s what I can remember seeing in the media. Multiple quarantine zones were setup in the city and the government officials called on every health worker to join the “force”. People really weren’t given the option. I still remember that day when they came home and asked Mum to come with them. She was barely given the time to get prepared. At the thought of all this a sharp pain surges in my stomach. Although deep down I know there’s little chance that she’s well, I still want to believe that she’s alive and unaffected.
We’ve been walking at a steady pace in silence for a while now. The sun is starting to rise. I look down at my Mediaband, securely attached to my wrist, and see that we’ve so far walked about 18 Km. To my surprise I also notice that the air is not contaminated; I’ve only seen a few instances in the past months where the air registered as being clean. As I bring my arm forward to show Noah, snap! Noah puts his arm in front of me as an indication to stop moving. We look around trying to find the source. Could it simply be an animal?
It’s common to find wild animals in this area, at the tip of the Nature Belt. The belt was part of an environmental program started nearly 30 years ago as an attempt to curb desertification. Now most of the Country, with the exception of this vast forested band that surrounds the city and part of the coast, is barren land. My dad once told me that many attempts were made at restoring the environment inland, but all have failed. This belt is now the only natural reserve and only source of fresh ground water. As the population grew, new infrastructures were developed to support multiple water sources such as water desalinization and extraction from atmoshperic humidity.
Noah points to the right, towards the woods. Squatting on the ground, face down in an animal’s viscera and eating everything before him, is a man — or what used to be a man. Although it’s at a distance, we can still hear the sound of breaking bones and torn flesh. I almost vomit at the scene. It’s the first time I actually see an infected person. Other occasions have only been in the media, while information was still being broadcast. Shuddering I turn my head towards Noah with terrified eyes, looking for some sort of direction and reassurance. He grasps my hand and slowly pulls me back. Others will most likely arrive shortly to try and feed on whatever remains of this small game. This is no place to stay. We decide to head for the cliffs on our left. This is our best option, since going for the woods — with chances of survival close to none — is definitely out of question. As we carefully walk towards the cliffs we hear more noises coming from the woods, rapidly intensifying. Is it..Is it what we feared the most? We both turn our heads. Three of those things are rapidly coming for us, jumping over shrubs and running through branches as if not even there.
“Run Ava, Run,” Noah screams out without hesitation. We both dash towards the guardrail by the cliff. I look down and immediately realize we won’t be able to descend quickly enough to save ourselves. Clack! I turn around at the sound of their rapid footsteps abruptly striking the ground. They’re right there — no time to run now. I quickly pull out my dive knife and stab to the heart the one heading for me. As if nothing, it aggressively pushes towards me, the blade deep in its chest while I still firmly grip the handle. Sfft! Out of instinct I pull it out and swiftly avoid the creature with a full circle motion. Now facing its back I take the weapon with both hands and plunge it into its neck at the base of its skull. It falls on the ground face down. Filled with adrenaline, Noah grabs one of them and throws it off the cliff. He then pulls a long kitchen knife from the back of his pack in a single gesture and forces it into the last creature’s head in an upwards movement from under its jaw. It falls on its back. I can’t even begin comprehending what just happened. My head starts spinning and my legs collapse under me; I momentarily black out and find myself sitting on the ground. I force myself to look at the two bodies before me. Their clothes are torn and soiled from excrement and blood, their skin filled with bulging veins and ulcerating lesions.
“Bu…but they’re just kids,” I say looking at Noah. “They used to be kids, Ava,” he immediately responds. I turn around and vomit whatever is left in my stomach. “We have to get rid of them. Otherwise they’ll attract others,” I say after collecting myself. Noah grabs his pack and puts it on the ground. He pulls out some gloves and disinfectant. “We need to be careful,” he says while handing me a pair. I put them on. We both pull our knives out of the bodies and carefully disinfect them. I then take one of the bodies by its legs. Noah follows and takes the arms. “One, two, threeee…” Noah counts as we throw it over the cliff. We do the same with the other body.
As I lean over to look at the bodies down below I notice to the right a depression in the cliff large enough for both of us to sit and rest, out of sight, for a moment. I step over the guardrail and carefully climb down. I take off my pack, rest it on the ground and sit down. Noah joins me and does the same. I lay back with my legs up and rest my head on my pack. I feel lightheaded and disoriented but the cool rock beneath me is soothing, almost therapeutic as chills move up my spine, slowing my heart rate. I hear Noah speaking but can’t decipher his words, no matter how hard I try. The cliff is slowly taking me; wave after wave further absorbing me until we make one, until I lay there motionless, fully encased.
My head turns at the sound of tumbling stones. Have they sensed us, even in hiding? I look for Noah but he’s nowhere to be found. Panic overcomes me. I feel helpless. I brace myself for the worst as I hear someone or something getting closer. It’s Noah. But there’s something wrong, he seems different, as if carrying a dark passenger. As he leans forward, blocking out the sun, the details of his face reappear; he’s not wearing his mask and his eyes are injected with blood. It can’t be. No, he can’t be infected. He dives for my neck, mouth wide open. I feel his teeth penetrating my skin, his hands pinning my arms down. I’m unable to scream and can hardly move.
“Ava! Ava! Ava,” Noah calls out. What’s happening? Noah’s there in front of me, holding my hand. I must have fallen in some sort of trance. The past event has been overwhelming; the stress must have shut down my body, only leaving my disconnected mind to make sense of it all. I’ll need to be stronger if we’re to stick to our plan, and most importantly, if we are to succeed. We’ve been talking about this for nearly four months now.
On the day the government officials came and took mum they were planning on putting the whole city in quarantine. No one would enter or leave. Somehow Dad must have found out because later that day he came to drop me some supplies and the Prototype. He asked that I never take it off since I didn’t need to. Promise me, he said. Unlike the masks distributed to the population, the prototype that Dad had built allowed me to eat, drink and breathe freely. There’s nothing in front of my mouth, just a blue haze coming out of the extremities of the small devices at the left and right of my mouth, connected to what I assume to be small air filters fitted in my nostrils. That must have been why he was relentlessly working in his office in the Tower. After coming home that day he went back to the city to get Mum. He had planned on coming back home with her before the full lock down. Only he didn’t make it. I was following the media and saw the incident; a media drone, programmed to follow action, captured the altercation between the military guard and my Dad. You could see that Dad had made his way through the crowd — waiting in line with their token to retrieve their masks and rations — only to be stopped by one of the guards. We could see they were arguing but couldn’t understand what they were saying. It made me wonder if it was blocked out on purpose since the drones are well capable of focusing on specific sounds from quite a distance. Dad pushed the guard and tried to go towards the quarantine building, to get Mum. That’s when he was shot unconscious, with one of those crowd control weapons, and dragged into the adjoining building. Why was he brought there? It didn’t make sense.
“You have to go back home. I don’t want you to risk yourself coming with me,” Noah says while grasping my hand. “No, it’s out of question, we need each other for this,” I say as I reach for his mask and gently pull it down. “The air is not contaminated, you can take it off” I say with a soft voice, almost whispering. We both reach for our packs and grab some water and some dried fruits. It’s quickly getting hot and the journey that awaits us will be treacherous and demanding. “You have enough rations at home and you don’t need to get a new mask,” he responds, implying there are no reasons for me to come along. It’s true, unlike Noah, my ‘mask’ doesn’t expire after 6 months — now in less than a week for Noah — it was built to last 5 years. He has the standard model that was distributed to everyone, well, to the uninfected. I quickly figured out that the distribution points were also used for weeding out the infected. To get your mask you had to put your thumb on the biometric device, apparently to confirm identity, but the device at the same time must have scanned for any trace of the virus in your system. That’s the only explanation for what happens next. Once you’ve received your mask and rations you’re invited out of the queue through the back. And there, people are escorted to continue straight out or to the right, leading to the quarantine building. I’ve seen this on a few occasions, although I’m quite certain it wasn’t meant to be.
“You know why I need to go. I want to find my parents. I’m sure they’re in the city, stuck somewhere in a building near a distribution point. They must be”.
“Its not safe–” he insists.
“It’s not an option,” I finally say, while impulsively leaning forward to embrace him, pressing my chest against his. The comfort of his warm and firm body momentarily makes me forget where we are. But it’s time to get up, and proceed with our plan. We review the high level details and agree that entering houses may be our best defense if we encounter them on the road, contrary to our initial thought. We were lucky just now; they were ‘kids’. But had we run into adults, I’m not sure we’d be here to talk about it — either infected or ‘animal’ feed. Not sure which is worse.
I take a deep breath and ready myself. It’s now or never.
(C) 2012 Alexandre Boudreau . All rights reserved.
Original story by Alexandre Boudreau.