The Outbreak

The roads are deserted.

The train stretches on forever, crossing the road in front of me in a never-ending stream of car after car.

I’ve driven this road dozens of times over the past several months, ever since meeting the love of my life, and there are usually dozens of cars lined up either behind or in front of me. Today, I pulled right up to the limit line of the railroad tracks for the first time in my life and wondered to myself, “Isn’t this too close?”

I see headlights behind me, far off in the distance.

The government has officially declared a state of emergency. As such, most people are cooped up in their homes, fighting for sanity and survival.

A similar thing happened about a year ago. Similar because COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic. Our current predicament is limited to the United States. But time alone will tell if it stays that way.

I kill my Spotify playlist and the news fills in the silence:

“Fifty more dead from ANCAVI-21,” a reporter says. “The President has issued a statement saying that he stands by his decision to shut down all borders and discontinue all air travel until we can get a handle on this virus.”

Apparently the virus was created as a cure for cancer: ANti CAncer VIrus, and it was released in 2021. Reports say it broke out in a courtroom in Springfield, Missouri. There are rumors that it actually causes zombification, but the news has been very hush about the specifics of the outbreak. The rumors are that death is almost immediate from contact with infected blood, and up to 72 hours later from infected air or water. Rumors are that the lab who invented the cure was trying to cure cancer quickly and accidentally created a “virus” that could be spread in every conceivable way, thus easily and completely eradicating cancer from the planet.

But that’s what happens when you play God.

And people are dying. While no one is clear about exactly what that death looks like, the point stands: People are dying because someone wanted to stop people from dying.

I sit in my car, listening to the reporter drone on about all the states with reported deaths. So far it has been kept from California. But it’s spreading. After a week now, a death has been reported as near as Utah. Missouri got hit the worst. Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas are also reporting increasing numbers of dead. The sad thing about this virus is that there’s no “cases reported.” Last year with COVID-19 there were tons of cases and a handful of deaths. ANCAVI-21 cases are only reported as deaths.

The train keeps going.

Am I worried?

No.

The whole world went guana crazy over COVID-19, and while there were many deaths from that virus, the media blew it way out of proportion. As such, there’s no reason to think ANCAVI-21 is any different. Except for the thought lodged in the back of my mind: “There’s no election this year.”

But still, it’s not here yet. There’s no guarantee it will get here. I have no reason to be afraid.

My phone rings, cutting off the reporter’s daily warning. It’s no problem, since I’ve heard the warning every day for the past week. Actually, multiple times every day for the past week. I can’t escape the warnings: “Stay inside. Don’t touch people. Wear long clothing and facemasks. Stay hydrated. Etcetera.” I don’t need the reporter to tell me because it’s already been ingrained in my mind.

But the phone call is from my roommate. Ben has been gone for the past several days at his brother’s wedding in Utah. I wonder what he wants to tell me, though it’s probably nothing more than, “I’m home,” since he started his return yesterday morning.

“What’s up bro?” I ask, answering the phone.

“Not much. Just got home. Wanted to let you know.” He pauses. “Where are you?”

“On my way home from Sam’s. She’s been really stressed lately, you know, with all this virus talk.” I watch as the train continues to roll past. This has to be the longest train in history. I look left—the direction from which it’s coming—and I think I finally see the end of it.

“Cool, bro.” Ben pauses. “I picked up a pizza when I got into town if you want some.”

“Thanks,” I say, “though I’m not sure I’ll eat any.” I really just want to be with Sam. She hadn’t wanted me to leave tonight. She wanted me to stay the night and hold her tight. I wanted to, I desperately wanted to, but common sense won out, and I decided to go home because I have work early tomorrow morning.

Finally the train passes, the guard hands rise, and I can drive again. The lights that had been far behind me still have not yet reached me, but they are closer now, and it looks like they belong to two separate cars. I give my car some gas and accelerate into the night.

“I’ll be home in twenty minutes,” I say.

“Any chance you could stop at Walgreens and pick me up some Ibuprofen? My head is killing me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”

I joke with him, “Have you stayed hydrated?” He laughs as I change to a serious tone: “But really, you were driving all day. Did you live on caffeine, or were you drinking water?”

“Mostly caffeine,” he admits.

“Then there’s your problem. Get some water, and use some of the Ibuprofen from my cabinet. Then get to sleep. I’ll be home soon.”

“Thanks. I owe you one.”

“No problem.”

I hang up the call and finish the uneventful drive back to my house.

***

I park my car and read the message Sam sent me on my way home. It’s as sweet as always: “Thanks for taking such good care of me. Thank you for encouraging me so well. Thank you for loving me so well.” That’s a summary of the contents. I’m not going to share her exact words. Privacy is important.

I kill my engine, open my door, and walk inside our cramped apartment. It’s a one bedroom for $1,000 a month. Between Ben and I, we pay $500 each, plus utilities every month. It’s a great gig, though I do miss having my own space. We fight for kitchen table use, we fight for entry room use, we share the bathroom and the bedroom. I’ve been tempted to move back into my parents’ place and offer them $500 a month, but no guy wants to move back home after being out of the nest.

So, I hang my keys on the hook by the door, walk into our room, strip down to my boxers like I do every night for sleep, pop a couple of melatonin gummies, and climb into bed.

Our beds are on opposite walls. Ben is on the right when looking in from the door, and I’m directly in front of the door.

I yawn, set my alarm for the next morning, and text Sam goodnight: I promise to talk to her in the morning and remind her that I love her.

The last thing I remember hearing before falling asleep is a soft, mucous-filled growl. The melatonin keeps me calm and pulls me to sleep before the noise registers.

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