Authors: Linda Andrews
Tags: #Part I Extinction Level Event
Extinction Level Event
By Linda Andrews
Copyright © 2011, 2012 by Linda Andrews
Published by LandNa Publishing at Smashwords
Cover Design by Linda Andrews
Photos by Kovaleff, Aswisher
Edited by TL Hockett
Second Edit by Cathleen Ross
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
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To my husband, my critique partners and beta readers
Thanks so much for sticking by me,
through the books many edits.
“I’m glad they’ve removed the bodies.”
So was she. Mavis Spanner inhaled a shaky breath and scanned the curb. God help her if she ever saw more human-shaped logs wrapped in blankets, towels, sheets or garbage bags piled onto stained sidewalks. A dark shadow skimmed over the windshield of her Honda Civic, before a fat black bird plopped down. Mavis shuddered as it pecked at the ground near a trimmed Texas Sage.
Guess they’d washed the smaller bits into the bushes.
“The Guard did the best they could to collect the dead as quickly as possible.” Mavis spared her niece a glance, before turning into the parking lot of the strip mall. Cars packed the area around the fast food chain and an armada of bicycles was chained to every available pole, table and tree.
So many vehicles meant people—cheeks bright with fever, oozing green snot, sprayed the infection with every sneeze, along with coughing blood. Her hands slipped on the steering wheel. But, that was in the past. Today was a new day. She could do this. Her niece deserved this, and Mavis owed her only living relative.
“They should have been faster.” Mavis’s niece, Sunnie Wilson, tossed her head. Her long brown ponytail wiggled over her shoulder and cast a web of fine hair across her fleece jacket. “No one wants a corpse in their house for a week or more.”
“No one had expected the death toll to be so high.” Or to spike so fast and stay elevated. Mavis cranked the wheel and pulled into a recently vacated spot. Two days after exposure, people had become sick.
They had filled up the hospitals.
Then the schools.
Then the stadiums.
And still the number of infected kept climbing.
Three days later many died.
Week after week, month after month, the cycle repeated and the death toll inched ever higher. Nurses fell ill. Doctors died in their offices. EMTs worked until they drowned in their own sputum. The crowded corridors of makeshift care facilities became epicenters of the influenza. The walls shook with the wheezy cough, giving rise to the name the Rattling Death.
Finally, the government told the infected to stay home and be taken care of by their loved ones. And when mom, dad, son or daughter died, they were hauled to the curb and stacked like yesterday’s garbage—to be ripped apart by coyotes, have their eyes pecked out by birds and the soft tissue eaten by rats.
“The cities had planned for ten percent mortality, not thirty-five.” After shifting into park, Mavis killed the engine. Her hand clung to the keys in the ignition. The Rattling Death epidemic had aged her well beyond her forty-two years. Her lungs seized as she fought the tidal wave of memories. They’d tried so hard to get a handle on things, to contain the infection, to stop the deaths...
Dark stars hemmed in Mavis’s vision. She commanded her lungs to work in measured increments. In. Out. In. Out.
The pandemic was over.
The last case of influenza had been diagnosed eight weeks, three days and, she checked her watch, four hours, thirteen minutes ago. All that remained was to bury the stacks of dead and figure out how to live.
This was why she needed to be here for Sunnie, even if it meant going outside where the people and germs were. She slid the keys out. Best to get this over with now, while the chance of infection was reasonably low.
“The government should have hired more Refermen.” Sunnie jerked her head toward the large refrigerated semi-truck bed humming at the end of the lot. Fat black cables fed it electricity to keep the dead cold and the smell of rot down.
“They’re Guardsmen, not Refermen.” Mavis yanked on the car’s handle and opened the door. Why did Sunnie’s generation have to give derogatory names to everything? “And they weren’t hired, they were activated. Those soldiers served on Mortuary duty as well as food distribution, masks and medicine dispensing and fire fighting and policing. Everyone who could was activated. And don’t forget, they died too in large numbers.”
Mavis inhaled the smoke-tainted air, detected the undertone of decomposition and refrigerant. Gad, how long until she got that smell out of her nasal passages?
Sunnie slammed the passenger door before practically skipping to the rear of the car. “So many people wouldn’t have died, if the government had kept the sick isolated.”
Mavis closed her eyes and counted to three. More internet wisdom and hindsight. How many deaths had been because of those fools spouting such nonsense? Relaxing her jaw, she opened her eyes and followed her niece across the parking lot.
“By the time someone exhibited symptoms, they’d had days to infect everyone around them.” When she hit the alarm button, the Civic chirped. Her keys jingled to a stop at the bottom of her purse. “Soon the fever hit. Within hours it shot to over one hundred and four then the lungs started filling with fluid, giving the familiar rattling cough and—”
“I know the symptoms.” Sunnie tossed her ponytail over her shoulder.
But she’d been spared seeing it in those she loved. Death had visited her niece from a distance. That made things worse, yet better for the girl to accept the death of her parents, brother and sister. No one should have to stand by helpless to prevent those they love from dying. Unfortunately, Mavis’s job had brought her to the front lines. She clutched her purse’s strap until her knuckles turned white. The decaying remnants of strangers were forever etched in her memory.
Sunnie paused in front of the fast food restaurant’s double doors. “Did their eyes really turn red?”
“Not like you think.” The brisk spring wind buffed Mavis’s cheeks and cold metal leached the warmth from her fingers before she pulled the door open. “The blood vessels in the eyes burst as the sick tried to cough up the sputum that was slowly drowning them.”
“God!” Sunnie hunkered low in her jacket.
Mavis’s skin itched. Had she not mentioned that bit before? She had tried to shield her niece from the worst. But the damn internet had spread so much misinformation, she’d had to debunk most of it while sparing her the more gruesome realities.
“Death occurred within seventy-two hours.” With her free hand she clasped Sunnie’s cold fingers. “It was relatively fast.”
It must have felt like an eternity.
“And it’s over.” Sunnie slowly exhaled and entered the restaurant.
For now. Mavis bit her lip to stop from uttering those words. If the Rattling Death followed the pattern of other influenza pandemics, the dying might start again in the fall.
It was one nasty virus that followed its own rules. Not that anyone believed her when she’d mentioned the possibility of another outbreak. Her breathing ragged, she stepped over the threshold and froze—cold air at her back, suffocating warmth pressing against her face. Oh God, so many people.
Her shaking hand reached up to adjust her face mask, while her frantic gaze shot to Sunnie’s oval face. Just as her fingers encountered uncovered skin, her eyes noted her niece’s lack of mask. Sweet Jesus! What had she done? Her heart thumped wildly against the cage of her ribs.
Sunnie was out in public.
“We don’t have to eat here.” Standing in the lobby, Sunnie clasped her hands together.
Get a grip. Bugs are everywhere. You know you can’t live without them. You know most are harmless. You’re a microbiologist, for Christ’s sake! Boxing up her panic, Mavis stuffed her fists into her pockets. Not anymore. She had the pink slip to prove it. Creating a mental file, she shoved it into her mind’s recycle bin. Her job now was to keep Sunnie safe and alive.
They had survived.
Now, they had to learn to live again.
Mavis forced her lips into a smile. The muscles throbbed from the exercise. It was safe for Sunnie to be here. She’d seen the numbers herself. Besides the girl asked for so little and had lost so much. “Leave? Nonsense. Do you know long I’ve waited for this?”
This was true, in a way. While she yearned for the end of the pandemic, she dreaded the lifting of the public gathering ban. Mavis sent the fear to a ‘think about it later’ file in her head. Her nostrils twitched. Grease, French fries, Seared meat—Yum.
And the swell of voices.
Her breath lodged in her throat and every bodily function seized. In the corners of the dining room, flat-screen televisions flashed images of white-teethed people spouting about the economic recovery, while ticker-tape updates scrolled across the bottom.
People talked—a mixture of Magpie chatter and the loud hush of children staying up past their bedtime.
Each flap of the jaw, each uncovered laugh, and each sneeze spread bugs—microbes— indelibly etched as the virus that caused the Rattling Death.
Blood drummed in Mavis’s ears, drowning out the sizzle of meat on the grill and crackle of a newly dunked batch of potatoes. Oh God! She’d exposed her niece and broken her promise to keep her safe. Numb fingers lost their grip on the door and it slowly slid home, sealing her and Sunnie inside with infected strangers.
She had to get her niece home where she’d be safe. Yet, her body remained stationary—even her breath was locked in the prison of her lungs. Thoughts of the last six months played like a film clip inside her head—mountains of corpses, dwindling resources and the relentless disease that resisted her efforts to annihilate it.
Pressure increased along the base of Mavis’s spine as Sunnie’s fingers spasmed against the small of Mavis’s back. Her chocolate-brown eyes widened as she scanned the restaurant’s occupants and her radiant smile faltered, then collapsed. Sighing, she looked at the packed tables. “I guess we can always get it to go.”
Go? Leave. Mavis nodded, and then shook her head. She dropped her hands to her sides. They were safe. For now. She had to remember that.
“Get it to go?” Mavis removed her hands from her pockets, released her pent-up breath, and flung the tension from her fingers. “Nonsense. We’ve waited a long time for this. It’s your nineteenth birthday celebration, remember?”
“The six-month anniversary of it.” Sunnie’s thin shoulders relaxed and a smile softened the tight skin around her eyes. “I thought I’d be twenty before they lifted the public gathering ban.”
“Exactly! Let’s not wait any longer to celebrate.” Mavis’s loafers squeaked on the wet tile as she trudged farther into the building. Her hands retreated to her pockets once more.
“Welcome to Burgers in a Basket.” A pimply-faced teen slapped her mop into a yellow bucket, and then rubbed her ear on her shoulder. Wheels squeaked as she eased the bucket backward. “We still have a few toys from the new animated movie, Hatshepsut.”
“Thank you.” Glancing over the girl’s shoulder, Mavis eyed the tan, smiling cartoon face. The Pyramids of Giza rose from the sand, and a cheeky crocodile basked in the sun behind the young woman. Despite the light-darkening film on the restaurant’s windows, the poster’s bright colors had faded over time.
Six months time to be exact, when the Arizona Department of Health Services had outlawed public gatherings. A good two months, before the Rattling Death had reached its peak.
Sunnie bumped her shoulder when she skipped past to stare at the picture. “We should go see it when the theaters open this weekend.” Ponytail wiggling over her shoulder, she glanced back at Mavis. “What do you say?”
Two public outings in the same week? The idea was a punch to her gut. All those people and their infectious bugs... Fingering the hand sanitizer in her pocket, Mavis felt her smile stiffen like setting cement. She hated to disappoint her niece, but... “Opening weekend is bound to be packed.”