Preview: Strange Days

 

It was a strange day. It had been a strange winter. February, usually the coldest month of the year, had been filled with 70-degree temperatures, and now all the trees and bushes were blooming like it was spring, though it was still technically a month away. Tiny pink and white petals drifted through the air like snow in the wind gusting across the yard, sending the highest tree branches waving back and forth, all of them but the oak covered in sprouting leaf buds. Though it was warm and bright, a layer of white blanketed the sky, almost as if it were about to snow, in contrast to the warm air and spring foliage.

Today was my birthday. I was twenty-one. In celebration of my finally coming of age, my parents were treating me and my best friend Charlene to our very first (as far as they knew) cocktail. Charlene wouldn’t be twenty-one for another two months, but my parents had graciously offered to ignore this little technicality. We had been invited to my childhood home for a cookout in joint celebration of my birth and the unseasonably warm weather.

From the looks of those clouds, I thought my father, Steve, might be frying the burgers on the stove. I turned and climbed the porch steps and went back inside. Charlene was coming down the stairs. The place we shared was just a mill house with a modest-size yard nearly barren of grass on a narrow sloping street, but it was spacious and had a killer second-floor balcony on the side that provided a view of an old railroad trestle snaking through the overgrown brush behind our lot. I liked to sit out there sometimes and imagine what it used to be like when the trains still ran across those tracks. The noise and the vibration must have been thunderous.

I followed Charlene into the living room. “We have to leave soon. Mom wants us to hurry.” My mother, Lillian, also worried about the impending bad weather, had called right before I walked outside. “Dad wants to try and get the hamburgers done before it starts raining.”

“Okay. Let me grab a cup of tea and throw my clothes on and we can go.”

Charlene had been lying down for the past three hours. She was a great napper. Any day that she didn’t have to go out, she would without fail lie down around one or so, and there she would languish until about four. But she was so energetic and productive the rest of the time, to the point of nearly being hyperactive, that you couldn’t really fault her for it.

Charlene was as good as her word. She took her tea upstairs and came back down twenty minutes later ready to go. She hadn’t bothered with makeup, but she had showered and changed into white capri pants and a flowery shirt.

“What do you think,” she said, tucking her blond hair behind her ears. “Does this scream barbecued meat and margaritas?”

“It does. But don’t worry, there’s going to be other things to eat besides meat.” Charlene was a vegetarian, which is why I suspected she stayed so slim and was able to get away with wearing little white capri pants. If I did that, I would look like the Michelin Man. And, since it was the middle of winter, I hadn’t been out in the sun much to speak of since the summer before despite the higher-than-average temperatures, and as a result, now possessed the skin tone of a cave dweller to go along with my extra fifteen pounds.

“I need to lose weight,” I moaned for the bajillionth time and hitched my pants up over my slight muffin top.

“Oh, you’re gorgeous,” Charlene replied. And she really meant it. She hated her angular, small-breasted frame and had told me time and time again how she wished she had my boobs and face. According to Charlene I not only had great tits, I had also been blessed with a beautiful face—not just a pretty one like hers. Her saying things like that was why my parents once asked me if she was a lesbian. I told them no, and I’m pretty sure I was right. (Not that any of us would have cared.) But if she was, I must not have done it for her, despite my lush bosom and exquisite features, because I had never seen even a spark of interest from her in that way. Plus, although Charlene tended to be a homebody and dated less than I did, she had gone with this guy named Devin for over two years when we were in high school, and from the amount of smooching at the lockers I witnessed, which she had seemed pretty enthusiastic about, it was clear she was indeed attracted to the male persuasion.

I picked my purse up off the coffee table and slid my feet into my shoes. I too had made an effort. Instead of my usual Converses and jeans, I was wearing black Mary Jane wedges—my favorite pair of semi-dressy shoes—gray slacks, and a white collared shirt that went well with the diamond stud earrings Charlene had given me that morning.

“Okay, birthday girl,” Charlene said, jingling her keys. “Let’s go party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine.”
Charlene drove the way she lived her life, briskly and efficiently, and we arrived at my parents’ house on the other side of town in record time.

“God, I love it here,” Charlene murmured as we went through the door. Despite the fact that she had grown up in a veritable mansion, she preferred the house I had been raised in. I loved her place when we first met and had envied her the pool and tennis court out back, but after being there a few times, I had begun to see how cold and lonely the airy contemporary home might seem. Her mother, Nicole (or “Nicky” to her boyfriends), who Charlene often referred to as “Mommie Dearest,” had once been an interior designer with a penchant for minimalism. She expected everything to stay immaculate at all times and never would have dreamed of filling rooms with mismatched homespun pieces the way my mother did. But the main reason I think Charlene liked my childhood home better than hers was because it was occupied. Her father was dead and her mother stayed gone all the time for weeks on end. Even when Charlene was a kid, Nicole had frequently been absent, leaving her in the care of only a nanny, and then not even that by the time she was twelve when Nicole deemed a housekeeper alone was good enough. Never mind the fact that the woman only worked during the day Monday through Friday. Our friendship had been forged out of weekend and late-night calls when Charlene became frightened for one reason or another or couldn’t take the silence any longer.

My mother, who greeted both of us now with a hug, had also been instrumental in cementing our friendship, which had begun when we first met in seventh grade and was still going strong now, nine years later.

My parents with their ranch-style house and thrift-store buys and generic food items—my mother prided herself on being able to find a bargain and also used coupons and frequented salvage grocery stores in order to make ends meet—gave Charlene the one thing her mother refused to give her: inclusion. There were times as we were growing up when Charlene would stay at my house for days at a time until her mother figured it out and made her go home. Neither of us had any siblings and felt the other was the sister we never had. And I think she filled a hole in my mom and dad’s life as well. I was not an only child by choice. My mother had tried to get pregnant for years after I was born but had only been able to manage it once and that had ended in a miscarriage.

After we put our purses in my old room, which was now considered the guest room but still contained my childhood bed, now covered in a spread I would have detested as a kid, we went back into the kitchen and sat down at the bar that divided it from the dining area.

My mother gestured at the appetizers she’d prepared. “Here, have something to hold you. You need to get something on your stomach before you drink.”

I exchanged a look with Charlene, holding back a smile, and reached for a cocktail weenie slathered in barbecue sauce.

“Okay, girlies, what’ll it be?” my dad asked, coming in through the door that led out to the garage. “A strawberry daiquiri, or a margarita?” He walked around to the blender and started adding ice cubes from a bucket he had ready, his blond-gray hair falling over his forehead. “And I’ve got beer too if you want one of those instead.”

I chose a margarita. I, like many young adults, had already consumed plenty of alcoholic beverages, and I knew I didn’t really care for sticky-sweet cocktails.

Charlene chose a beer, which seemed to please my dad who never drank anything but.
After giving us our drinks, he went out onto the patio to light the grill.

My mother flipped her blond-streaked brown hair over her shoulder and pulled open the refrigerator. “I thought we’d eat first.” She began taking bowls of pasta salad out. “I have some veggie burger patties for you, too,” she told Charlene. “And then we can give you your presents, Skye, and cut the cake.” A double-layer vanilla cake, prepared and simply decorated with a spray of pale pink flowers, sat on the counter under a clear domed lid.

“Okay, that’s fine.” I exchanged another look with Charlene. Despite my age, my parents insisted on singing “Happy Birthday” and watching me blow out the candles. I thought it was ridiculous, but Charlene loved it. Her mother was a great one for fabulous gifts and being taken out to eat or to other special outings when she was around, but I don’t think she ever once presented Charlene with a birthday cake complete with song and candles, not to mention other people besides whichever boyfriend she was currently dating. So, I tolerated it for her sake, allowing her to experience it vicariously through me.

If not for Charlene’s life to compare mine to, I think I would have been a much more ungrateful child, and possibly even a resentful one over our lack of finances. But thanks to her I was able to see how much I had been blessed with.

This was something I would realize more and more in the months following that night. Because that night, my mother, wanting to turn on a music channel to liven things ups, switched on the little TV she kept in the corner of the kitchen, and a special report came on that caused all of us to pause and listen, even my dad who could hear it on the patio. And what the newscaster said about an outbreak of a deadly flu-like illness, which seemed a little alarming at the time but not at all the portent it would become later, would signal the end of everything.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the start of my adult life would also be the beginning of the downfall of us all.

* * *

Charlene was sitting on the couch watching another news report about the fatal illness now sweeping the country when I came in from my job at a café near campus where I worked evenings after my classes ended. I was in my second year at a local college where I was majoring in business management. A small college was all my parents had been able to manage for me and even that had required a student loan. Thanks to her rich absentee mother, Charlene had been able to go to the College of Charleston—until they busted a party she was attending in a dorm room where they were drinking and smoking pot and she was kicked out, that is. Rather than try to get in somewhere else, she had ended up going to work as a technician in a medical lab that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree and seemed content enough for the time being. I suspected she didn’t really have to work at all but chose to anyway so she wouldn’t have to be completely under Mommie Dearest’s thumb.

“They’re quarantining whole areas now,” Charlene said, her eyes still glued to the set.

They were likening the illness to a particularly virulent strain of the flu. And with the nearly constant news coverage listing the symptoms to watch out for, the ERs and physician’s offices were now being overwhelmed with people flocking in for every little sniffle.

I let the bookbag I carried everything in on school days slide off my shoulder and drop to the floor. “What else are they saying?”

“Same things. Wash your hands a lot. Don’t go out unless you have to.”

“Still nothing they can do?”

She shook her head. “One hundred percent mortality rate.”

I stared at the screen, which had switched from a religious demonstration to two healthcare workers in full protective suits carrying a body out of a building. “This is starting to get scary.”

She turned her head to look at me for the first time. “You’re just now getting scared?”

* * *

The problem was that the symptoms were so similar to the common cold or the flu that many people didn’t seek medical treatment right away. The incubation period was slow at first before it escalated and killed, giving the person two or three days to infect others. It had spread so far before anyone understood what they were dealing with that there was little hope of containing it. But they did what they could—and tried to find a cure.

I saw a few people wearing masks here and there in the beginning, but otherwise it was pretty much business as usual. Then the first cases were diagnosed in the neighboring state, and then in ours. After that it seemed new deaths were being reported in our area every night.

At first I thought people weren’t showing up for class or a sandwich because they were afraid, but as more and more seats around me became empty, it hit me: the sickness had made its way to us.
Abruptly all the schools were closed, including my own. Charlene kept going to her job for another couple of weeks until it shut its doors as well. I doggedly kept showing up to work for another week after that and then at Charlene’s urging finally stayed home.

“I don’t have a ready-made source of income like you do. I need my job.”

“It’s not worth losing your life over,” she snapped back at me. “And I can get money for both of us.”

And get money she did. She hit up Mommie Dearest who was supposedly in the process of arranging to come home from whichever far-flung locale she was currently inhabiting and made it her mission to make sure that not only did we have everything we needed for the next foreseeable future, but that my parents did as well.

She had them follow us over to Walmart, where we converged on the store with four shopping carts, one for each of us, and proceeded to load them with jugs of water (not too many, though; none of us wanted to be accused of hoarding), toilet paper, canned goods, and other staples.

A few days later, she arranged for a load of firewood to be delivered to both homes. Since we lived in a mill house, we had a fireplace (we actually had several, but all had been blocked up except for the one in the living room), and my parents had a wood-burning stove.

“How much?” I asked her when she came back in from setting it up, looking wrung out but exalted.

“Don’t ask.”

* * *

Despite everything that was going on—the news reports and school closings and job shutdowns—I don’t think the magnitude of what was happening really hit home for me until the morning I ran out of coffee. I loved coffee. It was my one vice, and there was only one scoop left, not enough for half a pot even.

I dropped the metal measuring spoon back into the canister. I debated waking Charlene so we could ride to the store together, then decided to let her sleep. She was already planning another foray out to restock our supplies, which would have to be funded by her mother again; the least I could do was procure my own coffee. And some tea for Charlene, if they had any. I could surprise her with it.

I showered and dressed in my usual everyday attire—jeans, converses, and hoodie—and left the house.

The Community Cash was open, but it was out of coffee and tea, as well as a lot of other things. There were empty gaps on almost all the shelves.

Back outside, I sat in my car, a 1998 Lancer I called my hooptie that had been inexpertly painted flat black by the previous owner and tried to figure out the best place to try next. There was the Ingles right outside of town. And the BI-LO down in Newell. The Ingles got more business situated where it was off the highway leading into Pleasantburg, the closest decent-sized city, than the BI-LO did, which mainly only served the mill hill residents close by. I would probably have a better chance of finding what I wanted at the BI-LO.

When I got there, I discovered the parking lot full. I wasn’t expecting it after the near desolation of the roads. I came in from the side and had to slam on brakes to avoid hitting a woman in an SUV determined to snatch a spot being vacated by a man in a Challenger.

The woman cut in front of me, scarcely giving the other vehicle time to move out of the way, and slid into the space.

A horn sounded behind me, and I let off the brakes and turned down the row the woman had parked in and drove to the lower end. I found an open slot by a minivan parked right on the line and squeezed in beside it.

A man was coming out as I was walking up to the entrance. He was pushing a buggy full of nothing but bottled water and toilet paper. Catching me looking, he glared at me defiantly until I averted my eyes.

The inside of the store was packed, giving me my first true inkling that the situation was direr than I had imagined. It was a good thing I didn’t need a buggy; there weren’t any. Nor were there any hand baskets. Charlene was right. We needed to hurry and stock up again. Before everything was gone.

I followed a couple whose arms were laden with items through the store and down the aisle with coffee and stopped on the other side of a guy stocking the shelves. I waited for the people around him to move away then realized they were lingering for the same reason I was.

I maneuvered my way closer. “Do you have any coffee?”

He turned to me, looking harried. “Only regular, none of those pod things.”

“We need some too,” an older guy barked, and two others immediately chimed in, “Me too.”

“And I’d like some tea. I can’t drink coffee,” an elderly woman put in plaintively.

“I also need tea,” I told the stocker, who was fast passing harried and well on his way to becoming overwhelmed, I could tell.

The others must have seen it too, because a hard-faced man of about fifty suddenly stepped over and grabbed the top flap of a box and ripped it open. I watched, incredulous, as he pulled a brick of store-brand coffee out, looked at it, then shoved it back in, lifted the box, and carried it over to the side where his wife waited. The older guy who’d first spoken up after me grabbed a carton of creamer next, and one by one the rest began pulling boxes off the cart and opening them up. The stock boy stood back and made no move to stop them.

If I didn’t do something I was going to end up with nothing. I shoved between a middle-aged woman and a younger one I thought might be her daughter who had already helped themselves to some cocoa mix, and seized the side of a carton near the bottom and wrestled it out. Taking the whole thing with me, I swung it around and used it to push my way to the side, where I dropped down over it and tore it open.

It was tea bags. Not small boxes of Earl Grey or something similar, but larger ones of tagless generic tea. It would have to do. I scooped up two of them and started working my way toward the hard-faced man with the coffee. Like the ocean filling back in after the parting of the red sea, the people behind me rushed forward and fell onto the carton I’d abandoned on the floor.

I got as close to the man as I could, who was still lording over the coffee, handing some out here and there, and raised my voice to get his attention. “Can I have some coffee please?”

He squinted over at me, and I could see him assessing me, like he had some kind of right to decide what I did or didn’t get.

“It’s for my dad,” I said, trying not to let my feelings show. “He’s disabled,” I added, in case he wondered why my father hadn’t come himself.

As I waited to see if he would deign to allow me some of the coffee he had unfairly appropriated, another man, a younger, tattooed fellow, said, “Give it to me,” and began shouldering his way forward. He looked like he fully intended to take it, one way or the other. But before he could get his hands on the box, the older man shoved it at his wife, pushed by the nearest people, and bumped chests with him. He never even had to throw a punch. He just stood there, blocking the way, his much harder, larger muscles quivering, until the younger guy slowly backed down.

Still eyeing him, the man held out a hand to his wife for a brick of the coffee, and then tossed it over to me.

I had to let go of the boxes I was holding to catch it, then drop to the floor to retrieve them. I straightened back up, my face burning but feeling victorious nonetheless, and turned to the little old lady who had backed up against the shelves. I held one of the boxes of tea out to her.

She goggled down at it for a second then took it with a trembling hand. “Why thank you, dear.”

“Do you need anything else?”

She clutched the tea to her chest. “I’ve got some milk … but I do need sugar.”

“I believe it’s one aisle over.” I walked with her, keeping a death grip on my hard-won coffee and tea, until we had made it past the increasing crowd of people appearing from all over the supermarket intent on getting theirs while they could, then left her to go check out.

I made my way over to the register with the shortest line, and twenty minutes later, headed out the exit doors, clutching my bag to me like it contained gold.

The store seemed to be experiencing a lull. There were several empty spots dotting the parking lot now.

I made it to my car, unlocked it, and cracked the door open. I tossed the bag into the passenger seat, went to squeeze in, and heard my name being called behind me.

“Skye! Skye, is that you?”

I turned and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Chris. I had been crushing on him since I started Upland Central College a year and a half before. But it had only been recently that we had connected. So far we’d only gone out a few times, mainly for coffee or something to eat between classes, but the last time we talked, when he’d come to see me after they’d closed the school, he had made it clear that he was as interested in me as I was in him.

“Chris!” I walked up to meet him and put my arms around him, hugging him tightly.

He moved back after a moment, and I took a good look at him, taking in the circles under his eyes that in no way reduced his handsome dark looks but only seemed to enhance them somehow. “What are you doing here?” I glanced over at his gray Mustang parked a little farther up, confirming he was alone.

“I’m on my way to check on my mom. I just stopped in to get something to carry with me.” He held up the bag he was holding. “Sardines and raisins.”

I made a horrified face, and he laughed.

“What did you manage to get?”

“Coffee, and tea for Charlene.”

He whistled. “You lucky dog. Those shelves were empty went I went by them.”

“Yeah, I walked up right as they were restocking.”

His expression turned serious. “So how are you doing?”

“I’m okay. Still staying at my house with Charlene for now. How are you? Are you all right?”

He gave his head a shake, looked away, and took in a deep breath. “Everybody’s lost someone, I guess.”

My eyes widened. “Who? Who did you lose?”

His gaze shifted back to me. “Toby. Last week. And there have been lots more, from school and my neighborhood.”

Toby had been Chris’s best friend. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.” I swallowed, thinking of my own friends. “Did you … Did you happen to hear anything about Liz?” Liz was my closest companion at school. I had messaged her and left a few voicemails but hadn’t gotten a response.

“You don’t know?” His expression was now full of pity as well as sadness.

I closed my eyes at what I knew was coming.

“Skye, I’m sorry. Her little boy died last month, and then …” His voice trailed away.

“And then what? Just tell me.”

“She killed herself.”

No.” I turned away, pain knifing through me.

His arms went around me from behind. “I’m so sorry. They said—”

“Don’t tell me any more.” I twisted back around to face him. “I can’t take it.”

He pulled me to him and rested his chin on the top of my head, then released me and tilted my face up. “I have to go check on my mother and my other relatives down in Savannah—I haven’t been able to reach them—but then I’ll be back. I’ll come back and maybe I can stay with you and Charlene. I don’t like the idea of you and her being alone during all of this.”

I tried to smile at him. “I would love that. But if things get too bad, we can go to my parents’.”

“Where do they live?”

I hesitated, trying to think of the best route to tell him, and before I could answer, he pulled me in again, crushing me against him, and kissed me long and hard. “I have to know where you’re going to be,” he said when he drew back. “I don’t know what I’m going to find in Savannah …” He stared down at me intently. “Tell me and I’ll come there the instant I get back.”

I gazed back at him, dazed by his fierceness, feeling apprehensive and soothed at the same time. “They live near me, down Pinewood Road, across from the Community Cash.”

“I know where you’re talking about.”

“Go down that road, and their house is on the right. It’s white with brown shutters, and there’s a wooden mailbox. Look for my car. If I’m not at my house. Try there first.”

“I will.” He embraced me one final time, then let go. “Come on. I have something I want to give you.”

He started toward the Mustang, and a second later, I followed.

He opened the trunk, reached into a duffel bag, and pulled out a pistol.

I gasped. “What—”

“I want you to have it.” He pressed it into my hands and I cringed from the feel of the cold steel and nearly dropped it.

Careful.”

“I don’t know if I want this, Chris. I have never fired a gun in my life.”

He shifted around, shielding me from view with his body. “It’s just a precaution. Keep it for me. So I won’t worry.”

“But how do I …?”

“The safety’s on. See that switch?”

I looked down at it and nodded.

“When it’s red it means the safety is off. Red means dead. You flip the safety off and then pull the trigger.”

I nodded again. “Okay.”

“Now put it away.”

After a slight hesitation, I reached around under my hoodie and tucked it into my waistband.

He shut the trunk and started down the side of the car. “I’ll be back,” he said.

“You better. I’ll be waiting.”

He smiled at me and then climbed in and slammed the door.

* * *

Charlene was standing in the foyer when I got home. “Where have you been?” Her face was red with distress. She was still in the T-shirt and sweatpants she’d slept in and her hair was sticking up like she’d been raking her fingers through it.

“What? I went to the store. For coffee, to hold me until we stock up again.” I moved on into the kitchen, Charlene trailing behind me, and set the bag from BI-LO down on the table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. I should have left a note.”

“I couldn’t even call you!”

“Why not?”

“Because my phone is out!”

I pulled my phone out and looked down at the screen. Mine was also showing no service. Charlene and I had two different carriers. For both of them to be out at the same time was certainly alarming, but it didn’t completely account for Charlene’s level of distress.

I looked over at her. “Have you been watching the news again?”

She sighed heavily. “Yes, I have. Skye, you can’t continue to ignore what’s happening.”

“I’m not ignoring anything. Listen, I saw Chris, and he told me that Liz and her little boy are dead.”

If I had expected sympathy from Charlene, I was sadly mistaken; she was too upset to show me any.

“And so are a lot of other people! Men, women, and children. Dead. All over. They were showing video of it. It was awful. They’re filling every available space with bodies. In the chapels and out behind the hospitals. The funeral homes and morgues aren’t even taking them anymore. They’re completely overrun. And the people that are still alive … the lucky ones, ha, are being put in the parking garages, where they’re basically being left to die, all alone—” Her voice broke and she began to cry.

I went to her and put my arms around her. “It’s okay.” I bent my head to hers. “Shhh. It’s going to be all right. Try not to think about it.”

“I can’t help but think about it! People are acting crazy. Killing each other. And themselves. They’re committing suicide.”

“I know. It’s terrible. But it won’t do any good to dwell on it. I know things are bad right now, but we’ll get through it.”

She jerked away from me. “You don’t know that! We need to be prepared. And you need to be more careful! You shouldn’t have gone out alone, for coffee.”

“And tea. I have tea for you, too.”

“I don’t care about the stupid tea! I care about you. And me. What would I do without you? You have to face what’s going on. The phones are already starting to go and the power will be next, and then there will be even more food shortages. You have to stop being thoughtless. There’s only so much I can do for you, Skye!”

I frowned—There was only so much she could do for me? Hadn’t I, as well as my parents, done for her as well?—but before I could formulate a response, she had whipped around and left the room.
I stood there for a moment, listening to her stomp up the stairs, and then moved over to the back door, pulled it open, and stepped outside.

She was right. As much as I didn’t want to face it, I knew she was right and things were bad. And liable to get a lot worse before they got better. If they ever got better, I thought for the first time. I made my way down to the dry, hard-packed ground. But surely it would; we merely had to ride it out. We needed to stock up again, maybe go ahead and join my parents. There was safety in numbers—

My internal dialogue was interrupted as the back door opened and Charlene burst out and hurried down the steps.

She reached me at the bottom where I stood and threw her arms around me. “I’m sorry, Skye. I love you. You’re my best friend. My only friend.” She pulled back but kept her hands on my arms. “You and your parents have given me more than I could ever give you. You’ve made me a part of your family. And that means everything to me. You have to know this.” She was crying again, terrified of not only the sickness, but of losing me and being alone again. I was reminded of the vulnerable, miserable girl she’d been when I met her, and my heart softened, the indignation I’d been feeling melting away. Other than her mother, who cared more for herself than she would ever care for Charlene, we were all she had in the world. I thought again of all those years when she’d had no one for long periods of time except for the nannies, and then later on not even them. While all her schoolmates were spending the weekends sleeping over at each other’s homes and going on outings, Charlene had been sitting there alone in an empty house.

“I know, Charlene. It’s okay.” I pulled away from her and, taking her arm, forced her to walk with me up the steps and back into the house. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m okay. You’re okay. My parents are fine. Even your mother is fine.”

Charlene choked out a laugh. “Fat lot of good that’s doing me with her never here.”

“Her fat wallet’s doing a lot of good.”

“True. There is that.”

* * *

Two days later our phones were back up and we had successfully spent what was left of the money from Nicole’s last transfer to gas up our vehicles and buy more food and supplies. We took a bag of groceries over to my parents and Charlene offered to gas up their cars too, but my dad had already managed to fill both his and my mom’s tanks.

But I was worried. The cell phones were working again, but they were spotty. And a lot of the landlines were down, according to the local news, which had become alarming itself. The stories seemed slapped together now and every week there were different anchors and forecasters, each appearing a little less professional than the last. For the past few nights, a woman I had never seen before had been reading from a sheet of paper instead of a teleprompter and had only occasionally cut to the same live reporter in front of a shaky camera on the scene somewhere.

And worst of all was the silence from Charlene’s mother. Nicole had never made it home and had not been able to be reached. Though frequently absent from Charlene’s life, for months at a time now that Charlene was older, she always returned her phone calls. Sometimes right away, sometimes in a few hours, but she always called her back. And now it had been three days since Charlene started leaving messages for her to call with an update—and nothing. It wasn’t like her. If it was a matter of not being able to catch the flight she had been trying to arrange, she would have called. Or sent a message. I feared the worst.

Charlene was holding it together for now, but I could tell she was worried. I tried to reassure her that Nicole was fine and probably only caught in a gridlock somewhere of people trying to flee the sickness or make it back to their loved ones exactly like she was. Some of the routes in and out of the major cities were reported to be impassible now with wrecks and traffic jams and long lines of people stuck in their cars, some of them dying where they sat, further blocking the roads. But the only thing that seemed to make Charlene feel any better was when I said, “No news is good news.” And then she seemed to be able to put it out of her mind for the most part.

As the days dragged on, I would hear her repeat my words several times. “No news is good news.”





End of sample