COVID

Cover of COVID










COVID



A novella written

during the COVID-19

incident of 2020

















Prologue


It wasn’t until the global death toll hit 100,000 that the U.S. government issued a nationwide stay-at-home order. Most major cities had already mandated it, but this one came down from the White House. It was the most strict of all prior orders — this one prevented people from even going on walks regardless of the 20-foot rule. Everyone was relegated to their homes and, if they had one, their backyards.


The first of such orders was meant to last only three weeks. That was the incubation period of the virus. The theory was that if people completely cut off all contact with others, the virus would not be able to spread. But as new cases continued to climb even the world’s top scientists were stumped.


How naive we were in those early days. Just six months into the global pandemic, the virus would claim 5 million souls and cases were still exponentially rising. Despite a world-wide shutdown the virus continued to spread. No city, no nation was spared from its wrath. It would be another six months and 5% of the world’s population dead before we finally realized that the virus was propagating through the air.


After the discovery that COVID-19 was continuing to exist through the atmosphere, the rate of infection slowed down but did not halt. In the months that the virus was allowed to escalate unchecked, it had mutated into nothing we had ever seen. All previous assumptions about how long viruses were able to survive without a host were thrown out. We were in uncharted territory. Even once scientists knew how the virus was continuing to spread, they were powerless to stop it — they did not know how to purify the air at such scale. Life as we knew it would never be the same.



I.


Kevin lifted a wooden slat slightly and took a peek through the blinds. He raised the mask that was hanging from his neck up over his mouth. He lowered the balaclava on top of his head to cover his face minus a narrow slit around his eyes.


“Wait, we will find another way,” pleaded Tina.


“No, we need to get it. I’ll be fast. If I don’t find it in thirty minutes, I’ll come right back, I promise.”


Before Tina could say another word, Kevin slipped out of the first door. In what used to be their front porch, he took a deep breath before he went through the second, makeshift door and was out into the world. The cruel, cold world that wiped out three-quarters of all mankind. It seemed like a lifetime ago. It was a lifetime ago.


It was a beautiful, serene morning. A rare break of sunshine in an otherwise grey Seattle winter. Kevin snuck between two cars and into the alley. It was easiest to stay off the main roads. He knew the Jones’ house was empty as of last month, but there was no guarantee that it hasn’t been occupied since. It was worth a shot for a chance to scavenge some much needed supplies.


He remembered when they first moved into the neighborhood. Their biggest worry was trying to keep up with the Joneses. The literal fucking Joneses. How trivial life was in retrospect.


He took a minute to survey the perimeter. No sign of forced entry. Bob had one of those smart locks on the back door, but that had long since died. It had taken Kevin over a month but he found the hide-a-key in the shed about a year ago. The key which he now slid out of his coat pocket.


Inside the house he didn’t see any sign that anyone had been there. Most of the shelves were picked over from previous trips that Kevin had made. But even in these unprecedented times, and even though he knew the Jones family would never be back, Kevin still only took what he absolutely needed to keep him and his family alive.


Kevin headed for the medicine cabinet in the master bedroom. He knew he had seen the acetaminophen in there before. On his way, something in the office caught his eye. A bookbag on Bob’s dusty, mahogany desk. The bag itself, however, did not have dust on it.


Just as he turned around something hit him on the side of the head. He stumbled and before he could see who or what hit him, his body slammed to the ground and his vision went dark.



II.


Kevin saw his brother on a hospital bed hooked up to the ventilators. He immediately recognized this as a dream. He wasn’t actually present when his brother died. Because of the lockdown, millions of people died alone with no family by their side. In fact, his brother didn’t even die in a hospital. Makeshift infirmeries were set up in malls, gymnasiums, and stadiums all across the world. As far as he knew, they were still there but now served as mass graves.


He walked through the lifeless hallway, each footstep sending an echo down the corridor. Kevin had always been a vivid dreamer. In pre-COVID days it was fascinating to explore such fantastical dreamscapes. These days it was a curse to relive his nightmares in horrid detail.


At the end of the hall was a waiting room. In the middle was a vending machine. He recognized the room. This one was from a real memory. It was where his son was born. He dispensed a packet of peanut M&Ms as he did all those years before. These were Tina’s favorite.


Tina.


*****


When Kevin came to, his hands were loosely bound and a cloth was wrapped around his head. He wasn’t sure how long he had been out. Judging by the angle of the sunlight through the curtains he guessed it was late afternoon, well after the time he was supposed to be back.


“Who are you?” asked a voice. She tried to sound menacing but Kevin picked up on a slight tremble.


“I don’t want any trouble. Please, just let me go.”


“Who are you?” she repeated. This time without the tremble.


“I’m nobody. I was just looking for some medicine. Please…”


“Who is Kyle?” She was losing patience with him.


Wait, what? How did this lady know his son’s name? Kevin’s slight panic turned to fear, confusion, and anger at once.


She held up Kevin’s phone with a notification on the screen, “Motion in Kyle’s room”. Cellular service hadn’t worked for a couple of years, but there was one exception. Kevin did not know how or why, but Nest cam notifications still came through. He and Tina had used it as a low-level form of communication while he was out on supply runs. He saw eight notifications piled on the screen.


“Please, I need to get back to my family.”


“So… Kyle is your son?” Her voice sounded softer. To Kevin’s surprise, she moved closer as if to unbind his hands. Kevin saw movement behind the curtain and he flinched. The lady took a step back. “Wait, before I untie you. Promise you won’t harm us.”


“I promise.” Kevin replied. It was then that he saw the girl from behind the curtain. She looked to be about Kyle’s age.



III.


Kyle put a fresh, damp towel on his mother’s forehead. He was only eight, but had aged ten years in the last three. He wrapped one scarf around his mouth and nose followed by another.


“Where do you think you’re going?” Tina coughed.


“Dad has been gone over three hours.”


“Your dad will be fine,” Tina said assuredly. She was equal parts furious and worried, but she did not show that. “If you want to be a helper, can you please check on your sister?”


Tina’s mind was racing. Kevin had been late once before but that was only by an hour. It was when they had a functional bicycle so he was quite a ways from home. On his way back he flipped and tumbled when his front tire lodged into a trolley track. The bike was mangled and so was Kevin’s shoulder and ankle. Kevin sprinted home on that sprained ankle because he knew they would’ve been worried about him. Kevin still carries a slight limp from that.


Just when Tina started to fear the worst, two knocks on the door, followed by four more. Kyle recognized the knock and ran to the door to let his father in. They embraced for a long time. Luna ran out from her room to join them.


“Sorry I made you guys worry,” Kevin stammered. He was relieved to be back home as were they. Without wasting any more time he opened his pack and got out the medicine. “Kyle, get some water for mom. Just half a scoop okay?”


“Don’t you ever do that to us again!” Tina scolded, smacking him on his head. Kevin winced in pain which caused Tina to immediately recoil.


Kevin took off his balaclava to reveal his bandaged head.


“What happened?”


Kyle interjected, “Daddy, who is that?”


The Jones house intruders, mother and daughter, were standing on the front porch.


“So…” murmured Kevin. “I met these two.”



IV.


“Issa!” Marie whispered sharply. “Go around the back,” she ordered her daughter.


The two had been travelling up the California coast for the better part of two years. After the virus hit, their town was ravaged. When Issa’s father had succumbed to the illness, Marie packed up everything that would fit into her 25-pound backpack and they headed north.


Issa was only seven when they first set off on their adventure. That’s what Marie called it — an adventure. In the early days, Issa could only make it two or three miles a day. That distance slowly stretched to five, then ten. By her ninth birthday, Issa was pushing her mother to cover upward of 20 miles.


Looting for food got increasingly difficult as the days wore on. At first, if you weren’t picky, you could find a decent meal at any grocery store or gas station. Marie had grown up on lima beans and those were in ample supply in most places they stopped. Marie would fill up her thermos with equal parts beans and water in the morning, and by evening they would have a meal.


They had gotten really good at spotting which houses were unoccupied. The two were down to their last rations when they spotted the Jones house. Thanks to Issa’s petite frame, the two had also become proficient at finding even the smallest of entrances to exploit.


*****


“You two came all the way from California… on foot?” Tina should’ve been mad at her husband for bringing these two strangers. But she also trusted that if Kevin had brought them into their home, he had good reason to.


Marie nodded without saying a word.


Issa was in the other room, laughing and playing with Kyle and Luna. She hadn’t seen other children in months, let alone had the chance to play with them. She was sweetly brushing Luna’s hair while Kyle was desperately trying to turn her attention toward his collection of diecast airliners. Although he was now eight years old, all of his toys and interests were frozen at age five.


The room was dimly lit with one bulb in the center. It was powered only by a few solar panels and an old, scrap deep-cycle battery. Post-COVID, most of society’s infrastructure had slowly shut down. Starting with satellites and cell towers, then water and sewer, and finally the power grid. Turns out even these most basic utilities require lots of expertise to manage and maintain.


“Tell her where you two were heading.” Kevin asked gently.


“Through our travels we kept hearing rumors of a sanctuary in Canada,” Marie started. “This was in the early days when people were still helpful toward one another.”


Kevin also heard such whisperings amongst his few remaining neighbors. He looked at Tina who wasn’t buying any of this.


“There was one person who was actually from there,” Marie continued. “He was making his way south to spread the word.”


“Whoa, ok, you lost me there.” Tina was already skeptical, but this sounded insane. “Why would he leave to ‘spread the word’?”


“He was one of the church missionaries. He said he was doing the Lord’s work.”


Tina couldn’t have rolled her eyes any harder if she had actually had a seizure. This was not lost on Marie who gave a wry smile, nodded, and added “I know. I thought it was crazy too. But in these times, I thought, ‘what else did we have to lose?’ So we continued north.”


Tina was about to make some snide remark but instead let out a shriek just as they heard a loud explosion and the lights going out.



V.


Kevin had never been a religious man, or even a superstitious one. He didn’t view coincidences as “signs” from above. So when his homemade solar setup finally blew up, he didn’t read too much into that coinciding with them having these two travellers in their home. He did, however, as a practical man, see it as one potential reason to leave their home and seek better shelter for his family.


Marie had gone on to explain that this sanctuary was rumored to have made an advancement in air filtration technology. Travellers described a whole town that was able to go outside without wearing masks. Children running and playing in the streets. Lawns and side gardens filled with herbs and vegetables. It was this dream that had given Marie the motivation to keep walking.


“No, absolutely no way,” Tina said emphatically.


“What are we going to do? We can’t live here without power.”


“And your solution is to trek our two kids a thousand miles to a non-existent fairyland? Can’t we scrounge up the supplies to fix the batteries?”


“Ok, calm down, Vanessa Carlton. Canada is not a thousand miles away. And no, our battery was on its last legs. I’ve already checked every abandoned house in a five-mile radius for spare parts, remember?”


“How are the kids possibly going to survive?” reasoned Tina. She looked over at them playing in the other room, the soft glow from the candle flickering on their sweet little faces.


Marie was silent this whole time but finally chimed in, “Well, Issa was only seven when we left our home.”


Tina knew her kids. While this post-COVID life had forced them both to mature more quickly than they otherwise would have, they were still soft. Born into a cush, upper-class life, they probably didn’t even know what a lima bean was. Tina did not break her gaze from the children, nor did she say another word.


Kevin broke the silence, “What are the alternatives? Even if I could magically fix our power problem, what kind of life is this? We’re cooped up 23 hours a day. How much longer can we go on like this?”


Tina didn’t want to face it, but she knew this was a mere shell of their former existence. She and Kevin had contemplated ending it all several times through the past few years, as did almost everyone who survived the initial onslaught. Millions actually did, you know, end it all. But Kevin and Tina resolved that as long as they had their two kids and each other, that would be enough to keep going.


She finally looked over at Kevin, then to Marie, and back to Kevin.


“Ok.”



VI.


Tina didn’t get out much. Even in the early days of the post-apocalyptic world when it was common to see dozens of people out and about. But for Tina, being a Chinese-American, it really wasn’t safe for her to be out.


One day while in her own front yard she was confronted by a drunk who happened to be walking through their secluded little neighborhood. He was not from this area or at least didn’t appear to be.


“Fuck you! It’s all your fault!” yelled the man. He spit at her and then reached out to grab her.


Tina felt cornered. Her eyes desperately darted around to see if anyone nearby could help her. One neighbor looked to see what the commotion was but quickly closed her blinds. While their neighbors would have never been hostile toward Tina or her family, in these times, they weren’t exactly quick to help.


The man got closer as he continued his tirade, “You. Your people killed us all!” He reached out once more and this time grabbed Tina by the hair.


Out of instinct, or maybe rage, Tina plunged her spade into the man’s neck.


By the time Kevin returned home, Tina had already dragged the man’s body into the alley. Together they dug a shallow hole and rolled him into it. They never knew the man’s name as he had nothing on him but a flask of some cheap vodka.


Tina felt no remorse for what had transpired. She figured it was payback for the millions of Chinese men and women around the world who were massacred not from COVID-19, but at the hands of their fellow humans.


*****


Tina took one last look back at their home. They had lived there just over a decade. It was the only home their two kids had ever known. She and both kids’ faces were completely covered, partly because of the air, mostly to conceal their ethnicities.


Luckily the weather was cool so they weren’t uncomfortable. She wore a light sack slung across her back while Kevin had on the hiking pack.


Marie and Kevin looked at each other as if to say, “Lead the way.”


While Kevin had gone on countless supply runs over the years, it was nowhere near the experience that Marie had travelling across two states. Kevin gestured to Marie to take the lead.


“Very well,” Marie said, “Let’s take the alley.”


Kevin nodded in agreement and off they went. While it wasn’t ‘Walking Dead’-dangerous to be outside, it was just better to avoid any confrontations. They walked to the end of their neighborhood, then turned west toward the highway.



VII.


It wasn’t until the fourth day that they had their first encounter with people. It was a couple in their early twenties. Neither group said a word. Just a friendly nod and off they went on their separate ways.


Per Marie’s advice, they travelled parallel to I-5 one to two hundred yards from the highway itself. They skirted through neighborhoods for the first week or so. Then the towns got fewer and farther between. Most of the time they were walking through lightly wooded areas.


There was wildlife all around. Owls, squirrels, deer, elk. The group didn’t see any coyotes or wolves, but they were certainly out there.


They found a good cadence of camping for a few nights, and then finding an abandoned home to sleep on a bed and really recharge for a night.


A few weeks in, they stumbled upon a farmhouse off the beaten path. A decaying couple was on the porch swing still in an embrace. Marie went around the perimeter to the left, Kevin to the right, while Tina stayed with the kids just off an old willow tree at the base of the long driveway.


Kevin guessed the couple to be in their 90s and estimated that they had been dead less than a week. They found some shovels in the barn and gave the pair a proper burial. Inside the house was a note that read: “Do not weep for us. We are home now. God Bless.”


The farmhouse was well stocked with preserved goods and fresh eggs. There was a nice wood burning stove and plenty of dry firewood stored up in the barn. Seeing the kids snuggle up to the fire was the first semblance of true comfort that they had experienced in a long time. They decided it was okay to stay there a few extra days.


But on the third evening while having dinner together, they heard someone or something approaching up the gravel driveway.



VIII.


The three kids huddled in the pantry while the adults flanked the entrances with knives in hand. All they could see was a flashlight and a silhouette. There was no movement around the perimeter of the house; just one person walking straight toward the front porch.


Kevin gripped the knife tighter in his hand as he heard the old stairs creaking. It was obvious that there were people in the house and the stranger knew it. They didn’t have time to turn off the lights. Besides, the smell of fresh eggs and bacon was wafting through the house.


“Kevin?” the voice called out.


Kevin’s heart doubled in pace. He, Marie, and Tina all gave each other confused looks.


“Darlene?” It was a man’s voice. From the sound of it, he was fairly old. At this point he was right up to the door, shining his flashlight through the three glass panes.


Kevin cleared his throat. “They ain’t here no more! What business do you have here?”


The man retorted, “Who are you, and what have you done with Kevin and Darlene?”


Kevin could faintly hear the sound of a firearm hammer cocking back.


“Whoa, whoa. Hold up. I think there’s a misunderstanding here. They were dead when we found this place.”


“Dead?” Without another word or warning, a gunshot rang out.


The kids, who were still in the pantry, all screamed. Tina and Marie both screamed. Kevin wasn’t sure, but he probably screamed too.


The shot had gone straight through the deadbolt in the door, which swung open at this point. Simultaneously, out of sheer instinct, they all raised their masks over their faces. Also instinctively, the three of them raised their arms up. They weren’t about to bring knives to a gunfight.


“Don’t shoot, please!” they all said in unison.


The man who stepped in the door was wearing some sort of law enforcement uniform. In a world that had long since been lawless, they were surprised to see this man’s badge on his chest and hat. It was one of those old school Sheriff’s hats, brown and tall. He still had his gun pointed directly at Kevin’s chest while his eyes surveyed the room.


“What the heck is going on here?” the Sheriff demanded.


“Please, Mister Garrison,” Kevin had a habit of reading name tags. “We mean no trouble. We were just passing by, and I swear on my children that they were dead before we found them.”


“Get over there. With the other two” he ordered Kevin.


Tina, with tears in her eyes, tried to plead with the man, “You have to believe us, please.” She thought of the note that the old couple had left. “They… they left a note. It’s over there on the table.”


He walked over to the note and read it. “Darlene always did have the most beautiful handwriting.” His face looked as though he might have believed them, but his gun was still aimed in their direction.


“We always have dinner on Sundays.” Sheriff Garrison said under his breath.


Sunday. Kevin had no idea what day it was. Hell, he hardly knew what month it was anymore. “Sorry for your loss. We found them both on the porch swing. They were holding each other.”


Without a word, Sheriff Garrison withdrew his aim from Kevin. But instead of holstering his weapon, he brought it up right under his chin. BANG.



IX.


Well, that was fucked up. Luckily the kids hadn’t come out of the pantry yet. They dragged the Sheriff’s body out of the house but there was no cleaning the pool of blood on the floor or his brains from the ceiling.


It was late and not practical to leave at night. They rushed the kids upstairs for one more good night’s rest. Tomorrow they would continue their journey.


Kevin had a hard time falling asleep that night. He kept running scenarios through his head. Clearly the Sheriff was close to Kevin and Darlene, but there had to be more to the story. He concluded that there must’ve been some messed up love-triangle going on. Maybe the Sheriff and Darlene were fucking around. He couldn’t help but chuckle at his crazy thoughts.


It had been a while since his last dream but he had one that night. He and Tina were on the front porch, swinging and looking out onto the sunset. They just sat there swinging — for decades — until they died in each other’s arms. “A little too on the nose there,” he mocked his own subconscious.


The next morning while packing supplies, Kevin told Tina about the dream. “You’re not going to start calling me Darlene, are you?” she teased him.


“A little too soon for jokes, don’t you think?” He didn’t tell her about his love-triangle theory.


They each carefully fit as many eggs as they could fit around the tops of their backpacks.


“Hey, you don’t suppose we could take one or two of the chickens with us, do you?” Kevin inquired.


Tina shrugged and looked over to Marie. Marie thought about it for a beat. “More trouble than it’s worth. They’re not the quietest of animals.”


“You’re probably right.” Kevin half-heartedly agreed. “But can we at least have some fried chicken for breakfast before heading out?”


They didn’t have batter or oil, but between the bacon grease and a good cast iron skillet, Kevin was able to get a decent char on his chicken thighs. Tina and Marie both preferred the breasts. The kids stuck to eggs.


With their bellies full, they all put their masks and packs on. They were roughly a month into this and had made it to Mt. Vernon. Kevin did not know whether that was good or not, but he was starting to feel just a tiny bit optimistic. The kids were surprisingly resilient despite Tina’s initial concerns.


Kevin counted four rounds remaining in Sheriff Garrison’s revolver. He tucked it into his waistline and then they were off.



X.


“Kyle, do you know what today is?” Kevin asked rhetorically. His son was only two and a half; not exactly the most eloquent conversationalist just yet.


“Today we’re picking up mommy and baby sister from the hospital,” overemphasizing the enthusiasm in his voice.


Kyle did not avert his attention from the toy excavator he was ramming into the side of the coffee table in the living room.


Kevin sat down to Kyle’s level and looked him in the eyes. “Hey buddy. I thought you’d be excited.”


“Brother,” said Kyle.


Kevin chuckled. “I know you wanted a brother, but having a little sister is going to be just as fun, you’ll see. You’ll have someone to play with and she won’t hog all of your toys. Win win.”


Oh boy was Kevin wrong. Little miss Luna grew to love planes, trains, and automobiles. But it was okay because Kyle grew to love sharing his toys with his sister.


Seattle had the first recorded COVID-19 case in the US, so they were earlier than most with the quarantine orders. The first week was fun. It was like an early Spring Break. After that both kids started to really miss their classmates.


Kevin was accustomed to video conferencing for work, but then schools across the world adopted it as a temporary measure to continue the education. Even preschools used it so kids could continue to socialize.


Everyone assumed all of it was temporary. Just a few weeks. Weeks turned into months. Then once the world really began to unravel, education and socialization went out the window. Everyone was just trying to survive.


Kyle was always Luna’s best friend. Kyle’s best friend was a schoolmate from across town. He never saw that friend again. Over the next three years, brother and sister became each other’s best and only friends.


*****


“Kyle,” Luna addressed her brother, “did you see that bird?”


“What bird?”


“The red one.”


“Yeah, what about it?”


“It was cool right?”


“Yes, Luna, it was cool.”


“And the green one too?”


“Yup, I saw the green one too. And it was also cool.” Kyle smiled. He never got annoyed with his sister, no matter how pestering she could be.


Kevin watched as all three kids walked in front of him with Tina and Marie in front of them. He noticed that Kyle and Issa were walking quite close to one another.


His eyebrow furled. “When did this happen?” he thought to himself. Then he dug deep into his memory bank. What was he doing at age eight? Was that second grade? Third grade? Were girls even on his radar then?


Ah, yes. Rebecca Monroe. Rebecca was the cutest girl in Mrs. Powers’ class. The memories started coming back. He remembered the excitement he would feel even when she would flash him the slightest of smiles. When they would play Heads-up 7-up in class, he would always pick Rebecca. She never got the hint.


“Hey Luna,” he called to his baby girl. “Come walk with dad for a bit.”


“No thanks, dad!”


Kevin laughed. “Sorry, son, I tried,” he thought to himself.



XI.


When they made it to the Peach Arch there wasn’t a person in sight. Kevin recalled the last time he was at the border; they waited in line for three hours to cross. It was strange to see it empty.


During the COVID outbreak countries shut down their borders to slow the spread. However after the apocalypse, borders lost all meaning. The structure still stood but was overgrown with plants, bushes, and tree roots. Surprising how quickly nature reclaims its hold.


It had been a month since the farmhouse incident. On the way up, they had a few more human encounters but all were uneventful. There was one group who was also looking for the sanctuary. The two groups joined for a couple of days, but that quickly dissolved. The other group was just way too disorganized and slow, both traits that Kevin had no patience for.


The Duty Free shop, not surprisingly, had zero supplies inside. It did, however, make for a decent shelter for the night. Tina and Marie started a little fire in the middle of the store preparing to make a small meal.


“I’m going to scavenge for supplies; maybe a bit more firewood. Kyle, wanna come?” Kevin announced.


“Yeah!”


“Can I come too?” asked Issa.


Kevin looked at Marie, who nodded. “You all be careful,” she added.


Not to be left out, Luna sprung in, “Me too, me too!”


“No, honey, you stay here with mommy, okay? We’ll be quick.” With that, Kevin and the two kids headed out around the backside of the store.


“Issa is lovely,” Tina said as she handed Marie a can of beans she had just opened.


“Thank you. Your kids too.” Marie replied politely. “I’m glad Issa has kids to play with. It was a really lonely couple of years before we found you guys.”


The two got lost in a chat, reminiscing about mom things and their lives before the virus. Luna was snuggled on her mom’s lap, just listening to stories of old.


Dinner was just about ready when they heard a gunshot. The three of them leapt up confused and panicked. It would be a long sixty seconds before they heard the cries for help.


“Help!” It was Issa’s voice just as she came bursting through the boarded up storefront doors. “Kyle needs help!”


Twenty seconds behind her, Kevin ran through the doors with Kyle in his arms. “His leg. Quick, we need a tourniquet.”


Tina was trying to keep her composure as well as she could, but was clearly panicking. “What happened?”


“A coyote came out of nowhere. I was able to scare it away with the gun, but not before it bit Kyle.”



XII.


They were able to stop the bleeding, but the bite was deep. Kevin had a bit of whiskey left in his flask which he now poured into Kyle’s wound.


The two girls were crying and the three adults looked helpless. They didn’t know what to do. Kyle was unconscious and was running a slight fever. The bite was likely infected.


Defeated, Kevin sat with his face in his palms. He had never prayed to God before, but he did right then.


Someone suddenly burst through the door with their hands in the air, as if they anticipated Kevin’s next action.


Kevin swung around, pistol in hand, hammer cocked back. “Stay back!”


“Don’t shoot. I’m here to help.” the stranger said through his military-grade mask. He was clean shaven and his hair was in a tidy man bun. His voice was very calm for someone who had a gun pointed at him.


“The fuck is going on here? How do you know we need help?”


“Our scouts have been tailing you ever since you got to the border.”


“How many of you are there? Who the hell are you guys?”


“We’ll explain later, but if you want to save that kid’s leg, we need to act now,” said Man Bun guy.


Two more slowly entered through the same door, hands also raised to the sky.


“We have a vehicle. It only fits four. The kid and one other can come with us,” said one of the newcomers, a blonde woman with an Australian accent.


Kevin’s mind was spinning. “We’re not splitting up.”


Man Bun chimed back in, “We’ll leave one of ours to guide you to our camp, but only two of you can ride. You gotta choose now. That kid will lose his leg and maybe even his life.”


“I’ll go with them,” cried Tina. “Kevin, I’ll take Kyle and go.”


Kevin slowly lowered his gun. The strangers quickly mobilized to secure Kyle.


“Quick, grab whatever you need and let’s go,” Blondie said to Tina.


Tina grabbed her little pack. She gave Luna a kiss. She and Kevin embraced for a second, and as quick as that, they were gone.


Kevin turned to the one stranger who was left behind. He was a white guy with dreadlocks, same military-mask on. “Ok, buddy, I need some answers,” Kevin demanded.


“William,” he said. “But everyone calls me Willy.”


“Ok, Willy, where did your friends take my wife and son, and how far is it?”


“It’s a couple of hours by car. Four days by foot, three if we’re really trekking.”


“Where is it?”


“You’ve heard of the Sanctuary, right? That’s where we’re headed.”



XIII.


Tina wondered how the others were holding up. There hasn’t been a single day in Luna’s life where she didn’t have her mom. And it was over two decades ago since she and Kevin were last apart for more than a couple of days. They met in college and had been together ever since.


She also wondered how Marie and Issa were. Kyle had asked about Issa when he finally woke up.


Their two saviors, Man Bun and Blondie, had been true to their word. They drove them to their camp and the doctor here was able to save Kyle’s leg. He would be in a wheelchair for a week or two, but otherwise was expected to be fine.


It wasn’t until the next morning that Tina realized that their “camp” was actually a town. It was the Sanctuary that they had been looking for. And despite Tina’s skepticism, all of it turned out to be true. The air, the lawns, the gardens — all of it.


It was actually only a section of a town, between Vancouver and Whistler. About six square blocks. There was a spire in the middle of it all with a large ball at the top. She guessed that was the purifier mechanism that was making all of this possible.


Tina was right, the Orb at the top was indeed the purifier. When the Sanctuary started it was only two square blocks. As they continued to advance the technology in the Orb, they slowly expanded the boundaries to the thirty-six blocks that they currently had.


Tina and Kyle were free to walk about the place with no restrictions. The townsfolk were all very friendly and welcoming. Some neighbors offered fruits while others offered them drinks. Mother and son kindly accepted their offerings.


When Tina put the glass of juice up to her mouth, it was the first time she remembered that they were outside without their masks on. It was a strange feeling. She smiled as she watched Kyle drink the juice. She wasn’t sure if he even remembered what orange juice tasted like. His eyes lit up.


“Would you like some more?” the kind stranger asked Kyle.


Kyle looked at his mother for permission to say yes.


Tina answered for her son, “That’s very generous of you, ma’am, but no, thank you. We don’t want to be a burden.”


“No, no, no, not at all! Don’t be silly.” And she continued to pour a little more juice into Kyle’s glass.


From what Tina could gather, about half the town were locals of British Columbia, with the other half composed of people who had travelled here from around North America. There was even a group that had sailed east from Asia.


One of the homes they came upon belonged to Man Bun and Blondie, whose names were actually Brian and Melissa, or Mel for short.


“Don’t worry,” Brian assured them. “Your group will be safe with Willy. They’ll be here in a few days.”


“I don’t mean to overstep, but why can’t we go pick them up in a car?” asked Tina.


“The biofuel is extremely limited and we only use the vehicles when absolutely necessary,” explained Brian.


Mel echoed Brian’s initial assurance, “Willy has made the trip dozens of times. You have nothing to worry about.”


Tina thanked them again for saving Kyle, then the two of them continued on their way.


They spent the next couple of days taking in more of the town. Then, on the third evening, as promised, the rest of their group arrived at the Sanctuary.



XIV.


A siren rang out throughout the town, as it did whenever any person or party approached the main gates of the Sanctuary. They were expected, but it was protocol to still sound the siren any time the gates were going to open.


Willy led Kevin, Marie, and the two girls through the gate. It wasn’t massive, only about 15 feet tall. And it wasn’t very fortified either. Kevin guessed that it was mainly to keep out wildlife. There were, however, two guards on either side holding fairly substantial firearms.


Kevin was surprised that Tina and Kyle were not on the other side to greet them. Upon entering the whole party was escorted to a building immediately to the left of the main entrance.


“Who’s going first?” Willy asked the gang.


“First for what?” Kevin inquired.


“Oh sorry,” he apologized for not explaining. “It’s just a sanitation process. Each of us will go in, strip down, and scrub down. Your wife and kid are waiting on the other side.”


Kevin nodded in understanding, then turned to Marie. “Is it ok if Luna goes through with you and Issa?”


Kevin was the first one through. He hugged Kyle who was now out of the wheelchair and on crutches. Tina didn’t wait for her own hug, she just joined in for a group hug.


“How’s the leg?”


Tina answered, “It’s going to be fine. He’ll be on crutches for a week, but the leg is all good.”


Just then Luna came to join the group hug. Tina picked her up and gave her a long squeeze.


Marie and Issa were both out too. Issa and Kyle made eye contact, but she didn’t want to interrupt the family reunion. Finally, just as she was approaching to embrace Kyle, a boisterous voice cut the air.


“Welcome!” exclaimed the Mayor. “We’ve been waiting for you.”


Kevin sized him up. Not that he thought the Mayor was a threat or anything; it was more out of habit than anything. He was actually quite scrawny — his frame did not match his voice at all. He had on glasses, blue jeans, and a plain black t-shirt. He looked like your typical tech company CEO. On either side of him were Man Bun and Blondie.


The Mayor spoke again, “I think you’ve already met Brian and Mel.”


“Well, we never got their names. I’m Kevin,” he said as he approached and reached out to shake their hands. “Thank you for saving my son.”


“And I… I am Tom,” continued the Mayor.


Introductions were finished amongst the rest of the crew and then were off to the dining hall.


A dining hall. Kevin never thought he would see the day where he’d engage in a group meal ever again. Yet here he was. For a second he had to test himself to see if this was a dream.



XV.


After the meal, the group was shown to their quarters. The accommodations were modest, but comfortable. An abandoned bed and breakfast, they were given two rooms at the end of the hall on the main floor.


Willy drew a quick sketch of the town and marked his house on the map, in case they needed anything. He wished them a good night before going home to see his partner.


“So it was all true, huh?” Kevin said to Tina.


“Yes, all of it. I saw the purifier myself. It’s in the middle of town. You’ll see it tomorrow.”


“Incredible,” Kevin said in awe. He discreetly attempted to poke his right index finger through his left palm. It was his reality check to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “And you don’t need to wear a mask outside?”


“Nope. Kyle and I have been roaming these streets for two days. No mask.”


Kevin, who was standing at the foot of the bed, let himself fall backward onto the mattress. He let his head crash onto the plush pillow.


Knock, knock.


It was Mayor Tom at the door. “Will your kids be okay by themselves? We’ll just be down the hall in the lobby.”


He had already summoned Marie from her room. The four of them, Mayor Tom and the adults, then went down to the lobby.


“Let me cut straight to it,” Tom started. “I know you’ve all seen the Walking Dead. You’re probably thinking, ‘This place is too good to be true. What is the catch?’”


They all shifted in their seats nervously. Marie poked her head around to peer down the hall where their kids were sleeping. Kevin broke the silence, “Well, yeah Tom, that thought definitely crossed my mind.”


“Honest to God, or whatever god you may or may not believe in, there’s no catch… per se.”


All of their eyebrows raised at the “per se” part.


“You’re all welcome to stay as long as you’d like. However, you should know that the power source that runs our Orb is failing.


For the past two years, we’ve been hand-scribing the plans for a larger Orb. According to our estimates, it would work across all of North America. Every month we’re able to complete one set of blueprints, and we send a scout on horseback to deliver those plans across the continent.


It’s unclear whether any of our people have actually completed that journey yet.”


Marie interjected, “Why across the continent? Where are they to deliver the plans?”


“I have a scientist friend in Niagara Falls,” he answered, “We believe that the Falls could provide the power that we need to run the larger Orb. If it goes according to plan, it should eliminate the need for our local Orb.”


Tom had one last thing to add, “We’re looking for the next volunteer. Another set of plans should be ready in a week, and we’re down to our very last horse.


I would never force that duty upon any one of the citizens here at the Sanctuary. But if you’re willing to do something for the greater good… well, just think it over.”


And with that he said good night and left.


Everyone sat there in silence taking it all in.



XVI.


The next few days were uneventful. Boring, even, but in the best way possible.


Marie found herself in the town library. She hadn’t had the time nor mental capacity to read a book since… actually, she couldn’t remember the last book she read.


Even before COVID-19 hit, she was busy with a full-time job and raising Issa. Issa’s dad was around but he wasn’t father of the year material. They had Issa fairly young. Marie dropped out of community college a month before she was due, but swore to herself that she would go back. And indeed she did. She pulled many long nights juggling school, work, and her daughter. It nearly killed her, but she never once regretted any of it. She was proud of Issa and had every right to be.


She scanned the shelf with the novels. There were only three shelves of books, the other two held non-fiction and technical books. She grabbed “Hild” by Griffith and made her way outside.


Across the street, Issa, Kyle, and Luna were running around the park with a group of other children. She nodded to Kevin and Tina who were sitting on a bench watching the kids.


Marie found a vacant bench and sat down with her book. Between chapters she would take a few minutes to look up and just watch Issa playing. It had been a long, long time since Issa was this happy, and it warmed Marie’s heart.


That evening she approached Kevin and Tina. They agreed, of course, to take care of Issa as one of their own.


Marie then had a talk with her daughter.


“Issa, mom is going to go for a few months. Or it might be longer, I don’t know. But I promise… I promise that I will be back for you.”


“Mom?” Issa said confused, tears forming in her eyes. “I don’t understand. Where are you going?”


“It’s something I need to do. My strong, strong, beautiful girl… you’ll stay here with Kyle’s family, ok? They’ll take care of you.”


Issa was in a full sob at this point and it broke Marie’s heart. But she knew that her daughter was in good hands. She also knew in her heart that she would see her again.


Marie just held her daughter in her arms. They didn’t say another word. She just rocked Issa to sleep and held her for the night.



XVII.


Dr. Yang was in her laboratory when she heard the knock. When she got upstairs to the front door she was surprised to see a horse tied to the railing of her front porch. She cautiously opened the door.


A young man equipped with a military-grade mask was there. He looked equally haggard and relieved, like he had travelled across the world to arrive at her doorstep.


“Dr. Yang, I come from the Sanctuary,” the young man panted.


“Sanctuary?” Dr. Yang was confused. Was she supposed to know what that was?


“Yes, the Sanctuary. Tom sent me to deliver these plans. I mean, Thomas Redding.”


“Oh my! Come in, come in, please.”


Once inside, the man was able to catch his breath and calm down a bit.


“Dr. Yang,” he said, “Surely I’m not the first rider to arrive, am I?”


“Um, were there supposed to be more?” asked Dr. Yang.


The man’s heart sank. He went on to explain that he was the 14th rider that Mayor Tom had sent.


“But how? How did none of the 13 riders before me make it?” Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer in his own mind. He recalled the treacherous journey that he had just completed himself. It had taken everything he had to navigate the weather, the pirates, the fatigue. Now that he was really thinking about it, it was a miracle that he made it alive.


The young man was in tears, and Dr. Yang was helpless to console him. He had known many of the 13 riders. It was a lot to take in all at once.


*****


Dr. Yang and her team of engineers had constructed the Orb. Over nearly a year, they painstakingly sourced every part and pieced it all together. It was exactly to Tom’s plans, however it was missing a crucial piece.


It wasn’t until the last leg of the project that they realized the plans were damaged. The 14th rider’s case had leaked water into the blueprints rendering part of the plans unusable.


So they waited. Dr. Yang knew a new rider was dispatched every month. But each month came and went with no new arrivals.



XVIII.


Almost immediately after Marie set off on her journey, every fiber in her body wanted to turn back. She wanted to hold her daughter in her arms like she did every night before her departure. But no, she knew she had to stay strong. Her mind willed her to push forward.


The days were long. They would cover roughly 50 miles a day, Marie and Missy. She forgot to ask what the horse’s name was, so she had named her Missy.


About three weeks into the trip, Marie hit a wall. Travelling on horseback wasn’t as physically demanding as the trip she took with her daughter up north, but being alone was mentally draining. You can only talk to a horse for so long before losing your mind. But every time Marie thought she might give up, she thought of Issa.


The only upside to the trip was the weather. It was May when she left the Sanctuary. She couldn’t imagine how any of the riders before her attempted this during the winter months.


Around the fifth week was when she spotted the first fallen rider just off the side of the path. There was nothing left of them or their horse but a few bones. But the case with the blueprints was just lying there plain as day.


After that she kept an eye out for them. She felt sad for them, but each one that she spotted gave her more resolve to push on. “If they failed, then I must make sure that I succeed,” she would tell herself.


At week seven she and Missy both hit their strides. She could picture the finish line in her mind. There was one problem though; her rations were running low. She must have miscalculated her pace because she was supposed to have enough rations for the whole trip.


She went to half portions, and then quarter portions. She had to starve herself to save enough for Missy. After all, Missy was doing all the real heavy lifting.


In that final week she was starving. She could see it in her arms and ribs. Marie was literally going in and out of consciousness on that last day.


Luckily Dr. Yang had her own scouts patrolling the surrounding area looking for riders. They found Marie slumped over on her horse a few miles from her destination.


*****


It would be three weeks before Marie woke up from her coma. She had lost a quarter of her body weight and was severely dehydrated when they found her.


By the time she awoke, the Orb was already complete. It had been running for a week by that point and was already starting to work around a hundred-mile radius. It would take another 30 weeks before the effects reached the other coast.


Dr. Yang’s team was already replicating the plans and sending them on voyages across the seas.


Dr. Yang was there when Marie woke up. “Ryder 24, the world owes you a debt of gratitude.”


Marie smiled. “You must be Dr. Yang. I’m Marie.”



19.


It would be over a decade before most of the world’s infrastructure was rebuilt to the level it was before COVID-19. And some of it was never built. Humanity was given a reset button and we had enough wherewithal to rebuild only what was worthy of carrying forward into future generations.


Marie did end up back in the Sanctuary. She and Ryder 14 made the trip together.


15 years later, Kevin, Tina, and Marie would celebrate the birth of their first grandchild into the world. She would be the first of many grandchildren.


Issa ascended to Mayor of the Sanctuary, while Kyle stayed home with baby Darlene.


Luna, her husband, and their kids lived in Seattle.


Visiting back and forth was a breeze since borders were never re-established. However, passing by the Duty Free shop was always a sore spot in the road trip.