Suria sat stiff against the wall. Unlike the others, her eyes refused to dart back and forth in anxious sideway glances. Instead, they remained fixed ahead on the door. The image of her neighbor’s orange tabby sunning itself came to mind. It had become a workday ritual to find that cat sprawled across her driveway. She could envision his green eyes sparked from the warmth of the sun as he peered at her; daring her to run him over while that tail tapped ever so lightly against the concrete. If she were once again behind the wheel of her Jeep Cherokee, she would have tested the theory of a cat having nine lives.
Inside the last of her sanity cracked. Twenty-six days in a padded cell could do that, especially when you shared it with nine others. The original count had been fifteen but Suria refused to think about that now. Answerless questions could drive a person mad. She caressed the edge of the dulled knife. She had stolen it from her dinner tray back when they were given utensils to use. Fred would have called it little more than a butter knife but Fred was dead. She continued to stroke the blade, feeling more and more like Gollum from The Lord of The Rings. Soon she might start chanting, my precious. Laughter formed in her throat but Suria quelled it and shook her head so her dark hair obscured the tiny smile that had reached her lips. One never knew when they were watching.
Gabrielle glanced over at Suria. The woman seemed content to stare into her lap with a strange half hidden smile on her face. It was an odd sensation knowing she planned to cast her fate with the insane. Or maybe the prickling grip of fear stemmed from the grand fact that quarantine had become an everyday term and thirty days had seemed a small price to pay to rejoin society. Emily pulled on her arm. Gabrielle stared down at her daughter. “Rest.” She said and smoothed back her hair. Emily blinked and rubbed her tired eyes. Dark circles had formed against her sallow skin. “It’s okay.” Gabrielle smiled. “Stay with Damen.” Emily nodded and curled up against her friend’s shoulder.
“Brought you a sandwich.” Suria looked up at Gabrielle. Tall, thin, with flawless skin and gorgeous bone structure, she was the type of woman she used to hate. Kept in a cell for almost a month few unknowns remained. Gabrielle Torez, known by some as Gab, once held a promising career in banking. Before, she had a good life and the perfect little family with husband, Stan and daughter, Emily. Fred had deemed her a possible ally, admiring the way she befriended everyone and offered assistance to those suffering. All Suria knew was that a soft heart could get you killed.
Suria gave a violent shake of her head. “Poisoned. Won’t eat it.”
Gabrielle turned the sandwich over in her hands. She couldn’t quite get herself to eat it either. They had just thawed a bagel and slapped some peanut butter and jelly on it. She imagined the city’s supplies were dwindling. “A granola bar then?” Gabrielle asked fishing one from her pocket and holding it out.
Suria took the snack and examined the wrapper. Satisfied it hadn’t been tampered with she held it for a moment debating if she should save it when her stomach grumbled. “Why?”
“Why not?” came Gabrielle’s flippant reply. “I don’t mean that.” She knelt beside Suria. Sensing that she obviously wanted something, Suria watched her. Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at Emily and Damen. They sat huddled together in the opposite corner with their hands entwined.
Following Gabrielle’s gaze, Suria eyed the children before turning her attention to the others in the room. A lanky teen named Leif sat halfway between the children and what had been designated the sick corner. Gabrielle and a retired nurse named Betty had started it. A sheet had been draped over a makeshift string of belts to offer a little privacy to the dying. One could still make out the silhouettes -four of them. She watched Betty move from one prostrate body to the next, a rag in her hand. Had she strained, Suria could have heard the sweet whisperings of her words.
“I…” Gabrielle wrung her hands together, “just thought you should eat.”
“Save it for the kids.” She started to give the granola bar back but Gabrielle placed her hand on top of Suria’s then shook her head.
“Please.” Panic thrived in Gabrielle’s dark eyes, an old panic that Suria knew had been building since the epidemic broached the bubble of Gabrielle’s world. “Eat. You are going to need your strength.” Gabrielle squeezed Suria’s hand. Her near black eyes shifted from panic into some unknown reservoir of steel.
Suria had learned to keep her distance from the others after that first week when Jerry and George were taken away. They had nearly started an uprising before they had been hauled from the cell and killed. Though most preferred to believe they had succumbed to the sickness. Either way it ended any group effort to escape and the others had left Fred and Suria to their devices. Suria always assumed Gabrielle to be one of them. Now she wasn’t sure. “Ever been to any of the parks?”
“A few. Emily loves the one near our house. Nothing much, just a few swing sets, a jungle gym, and a sand box. I can’t wait to take Damen there.” Damen Fitz was ten, a slight boy afraid of his shadow and equally attached to Emily, as he was her mother. His family had been killed during a riot at their family store back when there was still a world. Gabrielle’s eyes welled up and a trembling smile graced her lips then disappeared. “Stan saved him. Did you know that? Pulled him from underneath the counter. Was the last thing Stan ever did. I can’t let it be in vain.”
“Won’t be. Four more days and they let us out.” Suria deadpanned although neither woman believed they would be released. Splitting the wrapper, she examined the granola bar once more before taking a bite. “Thanks.” Suria said drawing up her knees and turning away from Gabrielle. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Gabrielle return to her daughter and sit down between her and Damen.
Loss ran through the hollows of Suria’s bones followed by regret. There was so much left undone. She’d never scale the top of the rock-climbing wall at her gym, or sit in a Parisian café practicing her French. Never would she feel Mark’s child grow inside her womb, or watch that child’s school play while she sat in the audience holding their father’s hand. She had not become Mrs. Mark Bishop. Insisting instead, they marry in some lavish church wedding before friends and family instead of eloping like he had wanted. Now they would never marry.
Suria could handle the death of her parents, her brother and even her best friend, but not Mark. He had been her world but she hadn’t realized it until it was too late. Suria had been so consumed with the daily grind. Her mind always skipped ahead to the next big thing to accomplish or lost in the meaningless. Like the annoying habit of catching every radio station at commercial break on the days she managed to leave her cell phone at home, and traffic crawled to a standstill. It had been rare moments to think, and Suria had, just not the right thoughts.
The press of bodies stole the freshness of air, leaving it rife with the odors of the unwashed and dying. A month ago, she would have gagged. Now the repulsive stench coated the membranes of her nose and laced her throat. Tainting each breath. Suria wanted to snarl, felt the intensity simmer in a slow boil of rage. Then it came; what did one do when there was nothing left to lose?
It had been the question circling her brain for months. Feared at first when she still had something to lose, then as time loosened its grip and those she loved fell ill, the question thawed. What had started out as hope shriveled with each passing day. News reports of the pandemic blossomed one after another and emergency rooms swelled. Hysteria set in. Borders were closed. The United States of America became a gasping surge of hypochondriacs, the paranoid, and the insane while the truly sick somehow managed to get up every day and make it in to jobs that really didn’t matter. Paychecks still ruled and for every report of pandemic, there was another report stating everything was under control. People went on, paying bills and putting food on the table as coworkers and loved ones died. Never to the pandemic, no, that was always in another city, another state.
Denial killed America.
It was a slow unraveling. Until the end when the economy ground to a halt. Americans believed another country would come to their aide but by then the world had its own problems. Marshal law ensued and what had once been a thriving land of people driving SUVs and chatting on cell phones had been reduced to the plight of any other Third World country trying to keep its citizens alive.Those with money ran. Where, Suria didn’t know. She didn’t know anyone with enough money to find out. Logic dictated that they fled the country but Suria liked to believe they burrowed into the national parks and the other few landscapes time in all its speed had forgotten. Places like Kings Creek, nestled inside the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie Preserve. The rest, the ordinary, and the poor, had waited. In her hometown of Topeka, Kansas the wait remained for the most part peaceful. Too many had already developed the hacking cough and running nose of what the world had simply dubbed, The Super Flu.
Science considered it a marvel due to its complexity. A year and a half later, it still held that title. Any attempt to cure the virus only managed to cause it to mutate and become stronger. As a compound strain of a variety of weaker flu and influenza genomes, it started like any common cold or flu before attacking the skin like a flesh eating disease. The virus differed in each individual to some degree making it harder to diagnosis in its early stages. Hence, the thirty-day quarantine. Being a pharmacist, Suria had thought the ingeniousness of the virus displayed both the horror of man and nature. For what had started as a biological weapon soon became a product of nature as it spread.
Relief had come in the guise of camouflaged men moving from house to house. They rounded up those who could still walk, those left untouched. In their wake, they left red spray paint on the doors and sometimes bullet holes in the walls. No one really questioned. All knew death to be imminent once the blisters developed. Genocide. Looking back, Suria realized it had just been another form. Her thumb raked the tip of the knife, pressing until the pain rendered one drop of blood. She thought of Mark and remembered the report from the rifle. Even in memory, her body flinched. Suria wanted to do more than snarl. She wanted to feast on those men’s souls.
The sucking sound of a seal opening followed by the rustle of heavy plastic alerted her to their arrival. The low thud of boots, the squeaky wheel of the food cart growing ever near as the sound carried down the corridor. Suria tensed. Shifting slowly, back flat now against the wall to absorb the release of unsettled energy. She shut her eyes. Imagined them coming down the hall, picturing just what floor tile their boots touched as the jingle of keys teased her perked ears. Doors to other cells systematically opened, the faint murmuring pleads of strangers filled the hall then abruptly vanished behind the finality of a metal barricade. Five steps.
Four. Focusing on her own blood being pumped in and out of her heart, Suria realized a new level of calm. Apparently, the organ had given up any notion of strumming at a furious pace. Like any dual edged sword, Suria tasted the sharpness and traced the calm to its origin. Pushed past the death of Fred, the death of the others enclosed with her in the 14 x 17 foot cell, even past the death of those she had loved, back in time to where it began.
Brown University where the innocence of youth and the chance meeting of two young idealists would later converge into a beast bent on destruction. Suria had been that naïve idealist. Nothing more than a talking bauble head filled with hot air; hope had been the matchstick burning her fingers. The world ignited in chaos with one conversational rant she barely remembered.
Three. Suria could see it all in her mind’s eye. A horror show one could not turn away from, one none dared to ever make, playing and repeating endlessly whether awake or asleep. Had she known… But none could foresee the events, not even the original terrorist cell. Somehow, it had all gotten out of control. Stolen from her grasp, from theirs, were the lives lived before; the dreams, goals, aspirations, loves, and hopes of millions vanquished and left undone. Whoever uttered ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’ had a powerful set of lungs and maybe the magic touch. For it did stop.
Two. She heard the lock turn as the key made contact. Heard the people behind her struggle to come to life, their coughs and bemoaning of aches announcing what she already knew. Suria was no longer the daughter of Paul and Sylvia Baker. The knife felt heavy in her hand, foreign yet comfortable. She was no longer that same girl who had skinned her knees the first time she jumped from the swing set. No longer the heartsick teen that lost her virginity on prom night to Ted Harris, only to be dumped the following week. Nor was she Suria Baker, the woman, pharmacist, and soon to be wife. That reality had parted before it ever arrived. Long before Mark Bishop took his final breath and communicated the depth of his love with those amazing brown eyes – like a clear stream over a rock bed – only that last time forgiveness had been its current.
One. Caught by a question she still couldn’t bring herself to answer. She had become a hybrid, not quite human or rather, not yet a complete animal. Teetering on that precipice, knife in hand, the question formed again. What did one do when they had nothing left to lose? Big white block letters silhouetted against the blackness of her mind’s eye. The guard took his last step.
Suria opened her eyes.
“Back away.” It was a different voice muffled by the usual click of the lock and the heavy slide of the door. The gun entered the room first followed by the flick of fingers releasing the safety. The man behind the Glock pointed the muzzle around the room. As he looked down the sight, his eyes locked with hers. He stared at her for a moment – judging – before moving on. “All clear.”
Unlike the others kept in the surrounding cells, no one in this one spoke. Faith had been lost and without it, they were broken. Content to crouch around the scraps of food given and the eight ounces of rationed water a day. Suria did not move although her body quivered. She tried to stare at the ground and found her eyes picking a path to freedom. In came the man with the cart. A stocky man with the ability to knock her to the ground with a single blow, for he had during her last escape attempt.
The man with the cart studied Suria with narrowed eyes. She knew he thought of her as a tiny creature, something small and insignificant. He had commented on her being more pixie-like than human with her pale complexion and bright eyes. Yet he hadn’t expected such trouble from one so annoyingly fragile in appearance. Until now. “Watch her.” He said to the man in the doorway. “That one is dangerous. She’s the one who bit me.”
Suria glanced at the newcomer. The man paid little heed. The muzzle of the gun continued to rove through the room. Satisfied by this she focused on her former adversary. He emptied the contents of the cart wearily. “Afraid Shorty?” It wasn’t original, but it had been the nickname Fred had given and in his absence, she honored all that remained. Suria cocked her head, doglike, to the side and eased herself up. The action drew the attention of the gunman. His eyes rested on her and Suria cast a small furtive glance down the barrel at this untested assailant. He had the hard face of a soldier.
“No time for stupidity today. Already behind.” The short man let out a frustrated sigh and dumped a pile of food in the middle of the room. Unlike the normal assortment of cellophaned sandwiches, wrapped dry jerky and protein bars tumbled to the ground.
Suria inched to the right and away from the small crowd already busy picking up the food. “Let me guess, not enough protein in our diet?” She said aligning herself with a cleared path. Shorty turned toward her. A blister half hidden by the collar of his shirt bubbled the skin on his neck. Above it, a patch of peeled pink skin ran upward into his hair. Suria had seen enough wounds to know a blister had popped. The opened flesh had yet to develop into the oozing stage she was sure laid hidden further beneath his shirt or covered by hair.
“Lady, I’m trying to make it through the day.” Seemed a lot of his pluck had disappeared with the advent of the disease. Suria felt a tug of pity waver before her plans. He met her eyes, shook his head in defeat and turned to go. Now was not the time to go soft. Suria pressed her thumb wound into the knifepoint. He was dying; slowly yes, dying nonetheless. The precipice loomed and she jumped over the imagined ledge. The opportunity would never come again.
The wheels on the cart began to squeal as Shorty pushed it towards the door. Suria tightened her grip on the knife. She knew the force needed to make the makeshift weapon work, knew the damage such force could cause. A fool’s hope really. It sickened her to think humanity had been reduced to this.
It happened fast. Her lunging forward and the short man spinning round. She had meant to catch him in the back. Instead, the knife sunk to the hilt in the side of his neck. His left hand instinctively reached upward towards the wound while his right hand caught her forearm and squeezed. Suria cried out at the force crushing her bones. She pulled back on the cart and slammed it into his shin. Shorty made a gagging sound and his grip lessened enough for her to twist free. Leif stood as Suria passed him. The guard seemed surprised and the gun wavered between Suria and Leif before he settled on Suria.
His indecision had given her precious seconds. Behind her, she heard Shorty gasp again. A report sounded in the room. Suria flinched but continued forward on sheer adrenaline. An anguished cry left her lips as she ignored everything but the gun in the guard’s hands and her kickboxing training. Her humanity had slipped away. In true movie style Suria executed a kick that thrust the gun backward into the guard’s face. The bones and cartilage of his nose cracked. The man stumbled backward into the hall freeing the doorway for her escape. Fred would have been proud.
Blood surged in her ears. Suria stood in the doorway never expecting to have made it this far. Someone pushed her through the door. Suria turned to see Gabrielle pick up Emily and carry the child back towards her. “Take her.” Gabrielle said passing her daughter to Suria. She felt the tiny arms wrap around her neck, felt the warmth of the girl’s body press against her.
“Let’s play a game.” Suria said when she saw Leif pull the knife from Shorty. “Close your eyes and think of your favorite place. I’ll try to guess where it is. Okay?” She felt the soft brush of hair move upward against her throat. “Your eyes closed?” Emily gave a muffled reply Suria assumed was a yes.
Suria stared at the guard. He was less than a foot away. “Hit his head.” Leif said bending down to retrieve the gun. “Out cold.” He stared back into the room. “Gab, hurry.”
“I’m coming. Betty?” Gabrielle stared at the older woman.
“Someone needs to stay with them.” She said casting her fate with the sick.
“Okay. Come on Damen.” Gabrielle stepped out into the hall. Her pockets were stuffed with the protein bars and Damen carried an armful of jerky. “Where to?”
Suria led the way. “King’s Creek.”