IT ONLY HURTS IN YOUR HEART
Janelle can’t stop crying. I can’t say I blame her. I’ve done my share over the last two years, though the amount of tears both of us have shed in the last six days makes the last two years seem like an office party. Darren Eggers is on the TV, though he’s really not there. It’s a pre-recorded loop, and he’s been repeating himself for the last six hours. The first three times he gave us his news report, Jan and I held each other, both of us shivering from the icy infusion of absolute terror.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she says between sobs. “Mike… I can’t do it.”
“It’s the only way,” I say, wrapping my arm around her stomach as we spoon on the bed. I put my lips close to her ear and whisper, “We have to. If we don’t… We have to.”
“I know, baby. I’m afraid too.”
Janelle, the woman I’ve been in love with for twenty-nine years, turns over to face me. She hasn’t worn makeup in over a year, since there hasn’t been any makeup to buy. There hasn’t been anything to “buy” for the last year. There’s not enough people left to run a store, let alone a factory or a farm to actually produce something. The last thing I bought was a .45 automatic, a pump shotgun, and two boxes of ammunition. They were the last weapons left in the store, maybe in the city. Gary, the owner of the gun store, sold me two of his personal firearms, knowing there wasn’t going to be anyone left to shoot (or do the shooting) soon enough.
Even though we’ve been together for three decades, and I’ve seen Jan without makeup for much of it, it took me a while to get used to her natural face. She’s still the most stunning, heart-stoppingly gorgeous woman I’d ever laid eyes on, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that she is one of those rare, truly beautiful women that doesn’t need makeup to make jaws drop and tongues wag. But without makeup, she can no longer hide the sadness, the despair that has infected her. That has infected everyone, according to the news. Or will soon. Except it isn’t the infection that’s going to exterminate the human race.
“Is it going to hurt?” she asks, wiping a tear away with the back of her hand.
“Only in your heart,” I say, kissing the cheek she just smeared, tasting the salty hopelessness of our situation. “But otherwise, you’ll just fall asleep.”
Janelle begins to cry again, her mind hearing the unspoken and never wake again. I didn’t think I had any emotions left in me to join her. The wetness on my own cheeks says otherwise.
June 19, 2018 was the beginning of the end, though no one other than a few high-ranking Pentagon officials knew it. It was right out of a science fiction story. Only, by the time anyone put the pieces together, it was too late.
Sometime in the witching hours of the 19th, a small group of animal rights activists broke into the West Lorenton BioMedical Research Center just outside of Boston. They were the typical extremist knuckleheads, setting fire to places they couldn’t break into, detonating pipe bombs, surplus grenades, Claymore mines, and light mortars that had been “misplaced” during our draw-down from the Middle East at the end of 2014. Most were idiots who got their ideas from crap they read on the internet, and those types were nabbed and convicted quickly.
It was the dangerous, strategic thinkers that made local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies sweat. Not everyone coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan was in their right minds. They tended to hook up with other Vets that had taken some souvenirs from the enemy as well as from Uncle Sam. More often than not, those two groups would hook up with radical religious extremists, or worse, radical animal liberation extremists.
I felt ashamed to think at least with the religious nutters, only abortion doctors and nurses died when one group or another decided to pass judgment against those they accused of being murderous sinners. With the animal rights nutters, not only did the researchers become crime statistics under the victims column, but more than a few dumbasses with bolt cutters ended up dead or in the hospital from serious wounds incurred while freeing drug-crazed simians or other animals that didn’t simply walk out of their cages and escape into the night.
But on June 19th, an unknown group of activists decided to free every last animal from the Sub-C labs. I’m not sure what they were thinking, being three levels below ground, not to mention wild, frightened animals in pain, or not in their right animal minds (or missing parts of their animal minds altogether) suddenly having no cage doors barring them from the outside world. We’ve never heard the full story of how it happened, only some short video and audio clips that made their way around the internet, the NSA doing their best to scrub all of it from the global network.
Once it got on the pirate sites, it was all over. Some of the video footage was of two activists who hadn’t been so lucky, chunks of their flesh and bits of their bones strewn about the Sub-A lab after they realized they’d made a terrible mistake and tried to seal the facility. Of course, the assholes had murdered four of the night security officers, and had bound and gagged the few stragglers and roamers, both night shift techs and custodians. The bound and gagged victims were stuffed into a sealed lab unit, the locking mechanism jammed or broken so they couldn’t escape from the inside. Somehow, I feel like they got the worst of it.
That particular lab unit had internet access, but no telephone access, and no way to control the alarm system. If they hadn’t spent the first thirty minutes trying to pry open the door, they might have gotten an email to someone who could have logged in remotely and shut the entire facility down, sealing it completely. Their video and audio clips were heart-wrenching. The five men and three women agonized until the end about how they should have immediately began emailing everyone they could think of. By the time they actually did begin their frantic emails, it was too late.
The activists, brilliant geniuses that they were, couldn’t figure out how to trip the alarm system. Maybe they might have if they’d had another half hour or more, but the flood of infected animals had already wound their way up into Sub-A and out into the night by the time someone finally locked the place down. Whatever it was that the animals were spreading must have been bad, as the last video clip from the eight poor bastards locked inside was of five of them dead on the floor, two more writhing on the tile floor as they choked to death, and the person that hit the final upload button shouting about how they had just been gassed to death.
For the first two weeks, the American government was in full denial that the video and audio clips were real. Then Carson Walker showed up at Boston General with half of his arm torn off. The trauma team had him in the O.R. within two minutes. Within five, two doctors were dead, three nurses dying, and a physician’s tech, with Carson Walker close on her heels, was burning a trail through the halls, screaming her head off, leaving blood trails everywhere.
Unfortunately for her, Boston, and the rest of the world, she ran right by the Emergency waiting room. Mr. Carson Walker detoured from his pursuit of the tech, and within another five minutes, there were thirty or more men, women, and children pouring out of Boston General’s sliding glass doors. Some were simply trying to escape the bloodbath, while most were trying to catch the escapees to infect them. Or kill them. It seems like a fifty-fifty toss up on whether or not the victim lives, but it’s one hundred percent guaranteed that if the victim lives, more victims will soon be placing their bets.
Two weeks after the lab disaster, two-thirds of the Boston metro area was in absolute chaos. Within six weeks, the entire eastern seaboard, from Vermont to D.C., had gone dark. The hope was that it could be contained, and for about a month, it seemed that the combined American and Canadian military forces shot, burned, trampled, did just about everything except use nukes, to keep it contained.
Then an entire suburb of London went dark one night. By the end of the week, Copenhagen, Oslo, Johannesburg, and Rio were crawling with infected. The drone and satellite images were disturbing to say the least. Whatever the infection was, a virus, a microbe, hell, some internet crazies were talking alien or nanobot conspiracies, it had mutated enough to remain dormant for at least a week. Usually two or three. The doctors from the CDC nervously told the world that the infection was not just mutating to stay dormant for a time (an amount of time they wouldn’t speculate on, which was worrying enough), but it was mutating in an almost unlimited number of ways.
The heat and humidity in Rio mutated it one way, allowing it to infect others via mucus membranes. The cold and damp of the United Kingdom and the like caused it to mutate in a completely different fashion, a clear pus that was mistaken for sweat until it was too late. Even in America, a victim in Georgia would have a completely different mutation in his infection than someone from Minnesota. The whitecoats at the CDC never did come right out and say exactly what kind of infection the world was quaking it its boots over. For their refusal, the entire CDC complex went up with a bang when some of the locals decided the infection had come from inside one of the labs. Less than five minutes after the celebratory hooting and hollering began, as multiple buildings went up in flames, the hooting and hollering turned to screams, then growls, then silence when there were no more “norms” to infect and the infected ran off to some other section of the city.
Janelle shifts, waking herself up. I’ll hopefully be the last thing she sees before she falls asleep forever. The infected, they ignore corpses, no matter how fresh. It’s like they can sense a lack of a pulse or heartbeat. They seem to only want to gnaw on those of us still breathing. They’re terrifying to watch in action, especially in big packs. For a while, some of the cities on the west coast held out, but somehow, the infected with dormant mutations slipped in, unknowingly I’m sure, and the last of the big cities in America went silent within three months.
That was six months ago. Our little town of Fairfield, Idaho, made it another two months before we had to close up the town and hide in our houses when word came down that Twin Falls, Mountain Home, and Boise were falling. When two months passed by and the infected hadn’t wandered into the area, we all agreed to work together to bring in the crops that were beginning to rot in the fields. We had enough corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, and cows for milk and meat, to last us until the next season, longer if we were careful. Most of us had written the cows off, as the infected didn’t seem to care what they were chewing on, as long as it was alive and had red blood, but we agreed to defend them as long as we could.
Then Ryan McDonald came across a gang of them attacking the horses in his barn. He blew the heads off four of them with his pump shotgun, but a fifth bit him before he could put it down. He and his wife Ruth didn’t tell anyone. I can understand why. We would have killed him, and probably Ruth, instantly. That’s how paranoid we all were. But they kept quiet, and everyone thought Ryan had hurt himself trying to fix Jerry Preston’s harvester.
The change came over Ryan, of course, at the worst possible time. Fifty of us, one third of the remaining uninfected humans in Camas County, hell, maybe Idaho, America, or even the world, were in the fields getting the last of the potatoes out of the ground, when he just up and bit Verna Collins. Whatever they were infected with, it must have mutated again, because within seconds, Verna and Ryan then bit his wife Ruth, then the three of them attacked Hector, Josefa, Myra, and a couple of others. I had been about two hundred yards away when the chaos broke out. I didn’t even think twice, grabbing Janelle and heading straight for our Chevy half-ton.
We have enough food stocked up to last us almost a year. But who wants to live trapped inside their home for a year? Especially with barely enough electricity from the solar panels to run either the TV or the well pump. What happens if the solar unit breaks down and we have to go outside to the hand crank for water? No one knows how long the infected naturally live. They might live a normal human length, which for some, could be another sixty years. Maybe more, who knows? I’m sure a lot of them are dying off because there’s no one left to munch on, but then again, they don’t seem to eat anything. Maybe whatever they’re infected with somehow keeps them alive without the need of food. Hell, maybe they all gather at the Infected Waffle House each night, swapping stories of dumbass norms they cornered and turned (or killed) while dining on mud and dead rats.
I don’t want to speculate anymore. They’ve tried to get into our house numerous times. It’s satisfying to put a .45 or .12 gauge round into their skulls and watch them stop moving forever, but I’m out of bullets, and the noise only attracts more of them. They haven’t been around in the last week, but I know better than to step outside to try and get a better look. Whatever I can’t see through the slits in my upstairs or downstairs windows… are blind spots where ten thousand infected stand quietly, waiting for me to chance opening the door. It’s those kinds of thoughts that keep me both paranoid and alert, as well as longing for it to just be over with. Being paranoid and alert fifty percent of my remaining life, and being bored to death (or starving to death, or dehydrating to death, or burning to death, why not just go crazy and make a giant list of the ways we could die that are worse than never waking up from a deep sleep?) is exhausting.
Like I said, we could go on, try to wait it out, but why bother? We’re too old to have babies to repopulate the planet, and to be honest, neither of us were big believers that humans were great stewards of our world. It’s probably better that some other creature, maybe in a thousand years, maybe in a hundred thousand, will evolve with enough intelligence to find the remains of our civilization and use it as a teachable moment.
I’m scared, but not as scared as Janelle. She’s worried that it’s going to hurt. I’m worried that I’m going to change my mind, that my deeply-rooted will to live will kick in after it’s too late, the panic in me fading along with consciousness. I don’t want that to be my last memory. I want Janelle’s face, her scent, her soft skin, her beautiful hair (even more so now without a bunch of chemical shampoos and constant washings, which sounds odd, but I’ve never seen her hair shinier, healthier, more full of life than over the last six months) to be the last impulse my brain fires before it goes dark like the rest of the world.
Her face is the exact opposite of her hair. Lifeless, grey, dull. I knew it was time to put everything to an end once the spark of love that she’s always had in her eyes whenever she looks at me died out. I thought we might be able to make it a year then take our chances on the outside when our food and water finally ran out. I guess I imagined both of us just toughing it out, reading the same books over and over, talking until we were annoyed with each other’s voices, only to keep talking because of the fear of silence (or the fear of the noises the infected made as they rooted around the property trying to figure out how to infect the last two humans in the region).
But when that spark in her eyes disappeared, I knew we wouldn’t last. She wouldn’t. And I can’t live without her. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I wouldn’t want to live without her, obviously, but I truly believe I wouldn’t be able to live without her. I need her too much, and not just to keep an eye out for any infected when I have to open the door to dump out our waste. It feels like we’ve been married an entire century, but in a good way. Other than the last few weeks.
“Hon?” I ask, gently shaking her awake.
“Wuz?” she grumbles, then comes awake and sits bolt upright, fearing the infected are trying to get in again.
“Calm down, honey,” I say soothingly, stroking her beautiful, thick hair. “It’s just me. We’re safe.”
“We’re doomed,” she says, and any chance that the spark might come back has just been extinguished forever. She knows we’re doomed, the same as I.
“It’s time,” I say softly.
“I’m no longer afraid.”
Her chin juts out defiantly, and for a moment I think I see the old Janelle about to break through. But her eyes… I can’t look. I’ll start crying, and it will only delay the inevitable. I reach behind me and grab the glass of water. It’s starting to smell funny, and the taste is almost too strange to drink, but this will be the last time either of us have to worry about it. She takes the glass from me, her nose wrinkling involuntarily at the odor. I reach behind me again and grab the pill bottle.
Before Fairfield crumbled, I raided the town’s only pharmacy, with the blessing of Dr. Granger and Tim the Pharmacist. Tim Iona was his name, but he’d been Tim the Pharmacist for forty years. In a town of about three hundred, everyone has been doing their job forever. The young people, they leave within days after graduating from high school, going on to Boise, Salt Lake City, Portland, anywhere but rural Idaho.
There’s no one left to leave now, except us. We won’t be going to San Francisco.
I count out twenty Oxycontin and hand them to her. I try not to stare as she puts a pill in her mouth then takes a drink, tossing her head back a little as if it will help the big pill go down easier. Twenty times she repeats it, almost without variation, as if she’s a computer program on a loop. After the twentieth, I hand her ten Xanax pills.
Tim told me that this number and combination would keep us from throwing them up before they could do their job. I didn’t ask how he knew that. He told me that we’d feel drowsy, then sleepy, then nothing. I didn’t ask how he knew that either. I suppose I could ask Tim the Infected, if he was one of the few left wandering around the area, but I don’t fancy becoming whatever he is now. I damn sure don’t want Janelle to become infected.
She hands me the empty glass and rests her head on her pillow again, closing her eyes. I go to the pump and fill the glass up. My turn. I take a breath, hoping I don’t chicken out, sticking my finger down my throat before enough of the drugs can dissolve and begin doing their job properly. At least it won’t hurt. Other than in my heart.
Thirty pills later, I panic for a second, wondering if the now-foul taste of the well water will make me throw up. I’ve got a twelve pack of warm beer if need be, but beer and pills sounded like an easier way to throw up, especially since Janelle and I haven’t had a drink in the last couple of months. It’s too easy to screw up by making a poor decision under the influence. Like opening a door, or thinking I can kill all of the infected in my immediate area, saving the day, and maybe uniting the last humans on the planet.
My stomach settles. I ate a Pop-Tart earlier, just to have something in my stomach. Janelle hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday. She sighs, and I lie down next to her, my head on her chest. She strokes the few hairs I have left. Neither of us say anything.
I start to cry. I can’t help it. She soothes me, whispering to the top of my head, telling me it will be all right, we’ll be together in a better place soon. This makes me cry harder. I want to be with her in this life, dammit! But I know better. There’s no life left for us. Instead of panicking or being bitter that we’re about to finally be apart once our lives slip away, I grab onto her words. Maybe we will be together in a better place soon. I was never much for Jesus or God, but I was always a science nerd. I’d read a few articles over the years that tried to answer the question of what happened after death. Maybe our ethereal selves will break from our physical bodies, and we’ll travel, hand-in-hand, until we get to the next stop in our existence, just like some of the more hippie scientists claimed. Or guessed. Or dropped LSD and had a simulation.
I reach up to wipe my eyes and notice Janelle isn’t breathing. I can feel the panic now, rising quickly. She’s gone. She’s really gone. And there’s no turning back for me, either. But I’m too tired to panic. My eyes… I’m having trouble keeping them open. At least it won’t hurt. Except in m