The Virus (Part Two)

A typical trip to the store during a pandemic.

Note: This is a continuation of The Virus (Part One). I orginally planned for this to be a two-part story, but it looks like it’ll be a three-parter.

Who is infected? Who isn’t? You can’t tell: treat everyone as a hazard. The six-foot rule? No, give people ten or twenty feet, as much as you possibly can because your life is at stake. The virus is small, invisible, and deadly. Walking corpses of the future pumping respiratory failure into the air with their still-functioning lungs. I picture the air currents and the wind stirring the invisible death into the air, swirling and making beautiful unseen vertices mixing virus and atmosphere together.

A man is riding his bike along my side of the road. I’m upwind of him, and picturing the air leaving his mouth and swirling around his cheeks and chin, around his neck, and into the slipstream he’s dragging behind him. He’s not a threat with the air currents today. Any death he might be carrying blows the other way and I’m safe. As safe as can be in this world at least.

The rest of the trip to the dollar store was uneventful, at least as uneventful as you could expect in these times. A few gunshots and screams rang out in the distance, punctuating the silence of our new world with reminders of the horrors occurring nearby. A drive-by shooting a mile ahead on the road I was walking along; I could see the car slow down and the crack crack of gunshots delayed by five seconds, and the small group of people walking on the side of the road fleeing and collapsing. I couldn’t tell if murder was involved from this distance.

And clouds of smoke rose up to the east, near downtown. More fires, more rioting, more unrest. It was all so uneventful that I didn’t pay it much mind. This was the world now.

Finally I arrived at the store, but as I reached the front corner I noticed something. Blood, a lot of blood on the sidewalk and road that led around the side of the store. The blood smeared towards the back as if someone was dragged away; the streaks leading around the back corner of the store.

My choices were laid out in front of me in a mere fraction of a second. Continue on into the store and pretend that I didn’t notice the blood, cower my head and flee, or investigate the scene. My heart started pounding and I began to shake with adrenaline once again filling my body. Fight or flight? Decisions had to be made even if adrenaline cripples logical thought. Before I realized it my knife was out and I was turning the corner to the back of the store. The choice was made, but seemingly not by me.

The path of blood led to the store’s dumpster area, a tiny fenced-in area to hide the trash the store accumulates daily. The gate was slightly propped open and the path of blood welcomed me through the gate. One new problem now; there was a second path of blood leading from the other side of the building, two streaks of blood from each side of the store. What awaited me along with the pungent smell of trash and refuse?

I slowly peered around the gate with knife in one hand and pepper spray in the other, my body permanently shaking from what might greet me. I was relieved to find two bodies, one with their neck slit wide open and one with a myriad of gunshot wounds in the chest. Relieved because dead bodies weren’t a threat to me, only a sign of a threat, a threat that wasn’t in my immediate area. The shaking still continued though; the mystery still hadn’t been solved.

A weapon, a gun, anything? The man whose neck that was slit open — both of them armed guards popularly employed to stop robberies and hostage situations in these troubling times — had no gun on him, with his holster strangely empty with the strap open. The other man, the one with the gunshots, still had his weapon. I quickly changed my gloves and took the firearm. It would serve me better than it would serve him. Crouched down, I noticed bloody footsteps leading to and from the dumpsters and back around to the front of the store.

Another conflict arose within me between fighting or fleeing, but the new weapon in my hand urged me on. I took a guard’s gun which was a crime itself, and what if I was charged for these murders? Nothing to worry about though, more crimes were more important to investigate even if the law could eventually catch up to me. Once all of this shit was over they could charge me. That was later, in the indefinite future, and I was determined to survive until that day.

Once again, before I knew it I was standing next to the double glass doors at the front of the store. The world was silent — too silent — and time seemed to stand still. I could feel the sun creeping slowly across the sky, my shadow passing as a sluggish sundial on the sidewalk. More choices — act or flee — but here I was: why run now? Everyone fantasizes about these do or die moments where logic doesn’t apply; what you think you’d do you’d never do and my intuition to flee was countered by this chance encounter to finally do something. Face your fate. Confront the demon in the store whose bloody footprints lead directly to his lair, because the alternative was boring everyday life. Escape it even if it means likely death.

The first door opened quietly as I gently eased through it. And the second door? One of those damn bells to notify the store employees when someone entered. Even though I tried to open it slowly, the bell still jingled making a piercingly loud sound in the silence of the world. No sound answered the bell in return. Everything was silent, still, and oppressive.

But not totally silent as I discovered upon entering the store. Strange muffling arose from behind the counter. I stood there for a moment to gauge the layout of the store and listened for any sounds from the beast that might be lurking in here. Still and silent. Only the rustling behind the counter gave my senses something to latch onto. I glanced over and an employee was seated on the floor, gagged and tied up with the look of sheer panic on her face. She appeared unharmed and nodded her head towards the back of the store, with unintelligible grunts accompanying each motion. The beast was back there, she was saying.

More oppressive silence. It was lurking, hiding, stalking me. I crept forward with my finger on the trigger ready to defend myself and the helpless employee if I needed to. Creeping forward step by step until I reached the end of one of the aisles where I hid on the other side of the end cap. 

This time faint footsteps were heard. Cautious footsteps at the opposite end of the aisle. I looked around trying to formulate some plan of attack, some plan for defense, shoot to kill or shoot to wound? Too many thought racing through my head to make sense of anything. And…and above the door was a mirror: one of those spherical mirrors that allows you to see nearly the entire store in a tiny glass ball. Distorted perspectives but the human eye is sensitive to motion, and at the end of the aisle I was lurking at, a shape moved.

I waited until the shape was halfway down the aisle and peered around the racks to get a glimpse of whoever was stalking me. Gunshots immediately rang out in my direction, some missing down the aisle and shattering into the main door while others slammed into the shaving behind me. This man was unhinged, not even paying attention or deciding if I was a threat or not. Instant firing to kill, reckless firing, and my mind was made up: Kill or be killed. There was no reasoning with this person. Shoot first and enjoy your life if you still had it after time ceased to be frozen.

More creeping from the man towards me. I cleared my throat and said in a weak and shaky voice, “Alright. Let’s talk about this. Okay?” There was no reply besides the footsteps creeping towards me. In the mirror he was three-quarters of the way down the aisle, about fifteen feet away from my location. In the distorted mirror I could see his arm extended with the firearm poised to fill my body full of lead.

“Come on, let’s talk. I’m not a cop. I’m…nobody.” No reply. Unhinged. Unreasonable. Off the rails. And he was almost here.

I shot out from behind the endcap with my arms extended. The man with wild eyes seemed surprised, as if he could sneak up and kill me and I wouldn’t bat an eye or fight otherwise, the finger on his trigger poised, but I was quicker. Filled with adrenaline from the past ten minutes of stopped time, my body was as tense as a compressed spring, and at the tip of the spring ready to snap was my finger. The trigger jarred back and forth an indefinite amount of times before time unfroze and the moment was over. The man lay on the ground ten feet from me, slightly quivering extremities until all motion ceased.

And I realized I had killed a man. A fellow human being. Kill or be killed, right?

More footsteps sounded from the rear of the store, somehow quieter than the man’s careful steps moments earlier. I held the gun up again, unsure of how much ammo was left, but there wasn’t time to do anything about it. Bluff if necessary; the gun looked fully-loaded anyways. Recite the mantra again: Kill or be killed.

Around the end of the aisle shuffled a girl, maybe five- or six-year-old. She looked at me, down to the man on the ground, and then looked back at me. She walked over to the man and sat down cross-legged next to him. There were no tears or cries or shouts or curses, just a glazed look on her eyes. The same glazed look the man on the floor had.

“Da…daddy?” she asked the man bleeding on the floor.

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The Virus (Part One)

A typical trip to the store during a pandemic.

Note: This is totally unrelated to the other stories I’ve been working on. I think I need to branch out into making separate short stories instead of trying to piece together a novel. As always, I have no plans so whatever I post is whatever I post.

Early May and not a cloud in the sky. The temperature outside was in the 70s — the lower 70s probably — and a slight breeze blew out of the east. The humidity also wasn’t too bad either; maybe I could drag myself outside and go for a bike ride? Or maybe do some yard work? Gardening always needed to be done. The crops were very important this year.

I made some coffee via a pot on the stove; the electricity wasn’t working again and the few solar panels I had couldn’t supply the power to run a coffee maker. Pour the boiling water into a mug and dump the coffee grounds in. It makes a sludge but if you stir it enough the grounds eventually sink to the bottom. Coffee is coffee and depending on how the day is going you can always opt to slurp the sludge from the bottom when the drink itself is gone for an extra jolt of stimulants. This is what I did today.

And no eggs in the fridge either. No bread. Nothing. All the canned beans have been eaten weeks ago. And then the rice. And then the frostbitten meats in the back of the fridge. I had been in the phase of forced caloric restriction for weeks but soon I would graduate to forced fasting. Before I did anything, especially physical yard work/gardening, I’d have to go to the store, or try to at least. I hope it wouldn’t be another day where I’d be forced to feast on dandelions and mulberries from the yard. No mushrooms until the fall, so that wasn’t an option. There were always the five or six stray cats outside or squirrels and groundhogs. But it wasn’t bad enough for that. Yet, always a ‘yet’. One of the cats was pregnant and that wasn’t an option either, not a wise one at least. The smart move would be to wait until the kittens become adults and then see what needed to be done to survive.

I went downstairs and got dressed. New t-shirt, a pair of dirty pants, socks, and shoes. Loop the belt through the pant’s loops and give a thought about hanging the thing from the ceiling with my neck in it instead of pants and my waist. Once again: not yet. Someday, but not yet.

Grab the two pocket knives and place one in each pocket. Grab two bottles of pepper-spray: one clipped to my belt and the other in the pocket for a reserve. I purchased an entire ten pack of these spray cans when things started to go downhill. When was it even? A year ago? No. Just a few months, but the year felt like a decade thus far. Everyone I caught a glimpse of seemed to have aged as well as if the five months of the year really were a decade. Wrinkly skin, sagging collagen draped over bony frames along with grey, unkempt, and dirty hair. Even if the hair wasn’t actually grey, the hues always seemed slightly and tinged towards dreary and earthy tones. Dark circles and bags around and under every eye and even worse, a hopeless, blank, and dead look peering through the masks.

And back upstairs to find a bag. A black bag from the gas station would suffice. Weeks earlier it had held cheap liquor that wasn’t cheap cost wise. Alcohol was in high demand at the time for various reasons. Disinfectant, intoxication, fuel, whatever would kill and burn was needed. Malt liquor supplies were forcefully redirected to distilleries to make sanitizer. Hell, even E85 blend of ethanol/gasoline was being used as a makeshift disinfectant and was more expensive than gasoline for the first (and probably only) time in history. Some heathens with a death wish were even drinking the stuff or attempting to distill it. The news, whenever it was on, would occasionally mention the home fires/explosions due to these activities. Amateurs, I’d always think.

Take the bag, cut two holes in the side, and find some hemp cord. Place the bag on your head and adjust properly: one hole at your mouth and the other at your eyes. And then some fabric for a filter: this time an old dishrag. Place the rag inside the bag over your mouth and tie the hemp cord around your head accordingly. Everyone was using this technique or variation of it: cover your face, nose, and mouth at all costs. Hide your identity in case the worst should happen. In case survival boiled down to instinct. The killing of your own species in order for your own life to continue on. The world was a cruel place and spiraling downwards still. I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the perpetual ‘if’ of life was really a ‘when’.

And how could I forget my own sanitizer? Grab a spray bottle of that before I leave. Homemade from a shitty still and a bunch of wine I had brewed up years ago. Put anything with alcohol into the metal pot from Walmart rigged with copper tubing from the hardware store and cook it on top of a stove or any other available heat source. Water and ice to cool the vapor and you’re left with pure alcohol. Add some water to dilute it down to 70% and you have sanitizer, even if it wasn’t a gel like the fancy store-bought stuff. And it was drinkable: a sanitizer/coping mechanism even if you need to weigh the pros and cons of each. Alcohol is limited and you can get drunk or sanitize. Pick your poison — a zero-sum game — would you like your world to be Clean and Safe or would you prefer a mind that can cope, if only temporarily? A little of both was always a valid option. I opened the bottle and took a drink and sprayed my hands after putting the cap back on.

I put a baseball cap on my head over the black bag, along with some aviator sunglasses. Even during the crisis you needed to look somewhat stylish. The hat had a yellow sun with a silhouette of a tree on it with the words ‘Life is Good’ below the design. Time to go outside, to go to the store. Time to see what horrible things the day held for me and society in general.

The world still looked the same. The birds were chirping, stray dogs and cats roamed the streets, yards, and sidewalks, and the squirrels acted as jittery and flighty as always. The sun was still bright in the sky, the clouds still provided rain and storms, and the flowers and plants were joyfully growing. Trees were as stoic as trees always were and nothing was obviously wrong with the world. You needed to pay attention to other details: subtle details. The lack of litter around the neighborhoods. The quietness of the roads with only a few cars passing here and there. The smoke and scent from the fires. The vividness of the night sky when the power was out. But mostly it was the silence that was strange. Humans are loud, society is loud, motorcycles and cars and semis fueling leisure and the economy with perpetual sounds. The drunken shouting of the nearby bars, the endless drones of the TVs and music from homes. Nothing anymore. It’s dead quiet.

The grocery store was only a half mile away, a peaceful walk on this sunny and pleasant Thursday in May. Was it Thursday though? Luckily, I had a ton of cash saved up and it had benefited me greatly in the past few months. The agreement as society spiraled was that cash, US Federal Reserve Notes, are still worth something. Even as the economy shuts down like a patient being taken off life support, the forces of supply-and-demand and The Market are still enough to hold the Federal Reserve Note as the de-facto lifeblood of the economy. As others steal, kill, and maim to survive I could still live in a somewhat civilized manner. None of that for me yet, although I’ll l do whatever I need to survive and defend myself. I double checked the location of my pepper-spray bottles and adjusted my shopping bag facemask for comfort.

Another subtle thing that isn’t really that subtle — just ever-present now to a degree that people don’t notice much — is the stench. As the hospitals filled and as crematoriums ran at capacity and as society collapsed around us the infected had nowhere to go. The doctors eventually began turning sick people away; there wasn’t any way to treat the amount of Diseased People with our medical system’s limited capacity. So back home they went, usually to die. It attacks the lungs causing difficulty in breathing until you suffocated painfully in your own fluids. It’s a painful and slow death, one you can feel coming in the next day or two but have no way to avoid it. Some energetic people would put a bullet into their heads, or dangle themselves from the ceiling or a tree, but most clung to the slim hope of survival. Instinct is strong and hope is stronger, even if there is no hope. Knowing they’re going to die, most people hung onto life and suffered until their bodies regretfully shut down. Luckily the screams and gasps we’re faint enough; you only heard them if you were directly outside their homes.

But the stench — the ever-present stench of rotting and decaying bodies holded up in their former homes, now their temporary caskets — permeated the atmosphere. Those without families or friends. Those that would rot indefinatley until society pulled itself together enough to clease the homes. You never knew which homes had corpses in them either, the smells of the bodies intermingling indiscriminately in the wind. A few bodies hanging from trees had been picked clean by mice, birds, maggots, and anything else looking for an easy meal, their skeletons hanging by tendons until even those couldn’t support the weight of the bones. Skeletons in yards under the trees, sometimes the skull and vertebrae still hanging from the branches. It was a grim sight but I was used to it by now despite a vague knowledge of the trauma I’d surely carry around with me for the rest of my life; I would be another survivor of a war stricken with PTSD and substance abuse issues. Curious glances at the remains now and wondering how their final moments were. What would my final moment be? How far away was it? Yet? If? When? Not thinking, I pulled my homemade sanitizer out and sprayed my gloved hands.

Around the corner at the end of the block I ran into a group of three teenagers. I knew they’d be an issue as soon as I saw them. Out to cause trouble for no other reason than to cause trouble with law enforcement either non-existent or busy doing other more important things. Cleaning the dead bodies out of the homes, protecting businesses being robbed and picked clean, or battling the periodic riots. No one cared about some punks beating innocent people up. It was every man and woman for themselves in this world.

They eyed me suspiciously as I tried to ignore them by casually walking past them. Finally one, after looking back and forth to his friends spoke up. “Hey friend, what are you doing today? Out for a peaceful walk?”

“Yes. It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?” I replied, once again trying to mind my own business.

“Where are you going? Huh?” They walked closer to me as I walked along the side of the street.

“Just running errands. No big deal. To the store. For food.” I shrugged and walked past them. As I passed them I turned my head slightly to the side to keep their vague shapes in my peripheral, acting as though I was looking at the homes to my side.

“Hey, where are you going? We want to talk to you. Don’t be rude,” one of them said.

And another said, “Yeah, get the hell back here. Fucking punk. Rude ass.”

And then I heard them walking towards me. Vague shapes moving in the blurry corners of my vision. And without thinking my hand was on one of my bottles of pepper-spray. I knew what was about to go down and I was ready. I had plenty of perfect practice over the past few months; you got your ass kicked a few times and you learned quickly.

One mistake the teens made was not wearing glasses of any sort. A rookie mistake really. My hands would be full if they had their eyes covered, but they didn’t and I realized this fact as soon as I saw their group. I’d be fine. As soon as they were behind me, pounced and tensed to strike, I turned and released a fiery spray of concentrated capsaicin completely taking them by surprise.

At first I sprayed each one in the eyes as quickly as I could. Just a small amount to neutralize the threat and cause them some intense burning and pain. Not surprisingly, they started to scream and flail and were no longer a threat. Eventually they became disoriented and fell to the ground a few feet apart, crawling, screaming, writhing, crying and wondering what the hell they were supposed to do next. What went wrong? They thought in bursts of thought interspersed in tiny gaps of the intense pain.

One thing about the lawlessness in the world is that it works both ways, a fact forgotten by any would be criminal punks looking to fuck someone’s day up. And I wasn’t just some innocent victim acting in self defense here, no, these fuckers wanted my blood; I was their prey. But now I was the predator. In this new society you need to teach lessons where lessons need to be taught.

So as they laid there squirming, I walked up to one of them and hosed him in the face with the spray for a few seemingly endless seconds. While the first spray was for self defense, this was for blatant offence. It was to hurt, to cause harm, with zero regard for these people as fellow human beings. His eyes wouldn’t work for another hour now. And then I crouched down, held the can up to his screaming and foaming mouth and sprayed some more down his throat. The cry that came out was from an animal, an animal that had no idea what was going on. His friends heard and started screaming in sympathy and fear over what was happening to him, and what would soon be happening to them. 

I calmly proceeded to the other two and did the same thing to them. More animalistic shrieks and squirming. They tried to pierce some sense of sympathy into my mind. No, it wouldn’t work. Nothing personal, this world was a cold world where justice was in short supply. Sometimes you need to exact cold vengeance on people that deserve it. They would learn if they haven’t learned already.

More hand sanitizer and adjusting my facemask. Just a tiny bump in the road, no big deal, for the current situation in the world. And onward to the store with the screams behind me turning into sad whimpering and then fading with distance. I wondered what chaos awaited me there.

Read The Virus (Part Two), the obvious second part to this story, if you’re interested.

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