When did it start, that’s a hard question to answer. I’m not even sure there is any particular order to it. Some people say it started with the war. Some people say it was the currency collapse or the worldwide economic collapse. Some people say it was the religious war that consumed half the world at one point. All I know for sure is that it started before I was born.
My parents were married old-style and there was a brother and a sister before I came on the scene. The sister I barely knew as she died for some reason I can’t remember. I think it was something to do with her heart, but I can’t be sure. I remember it was expected. I remember she couldn’t play outside or do chores because she was weak. I remember we didn’t spend a lot of time with other kids because we might bring a sickness home. I remember at the end all she could do was lie in bed and then she just went to sleep and never woke up.
I remember hearing my parents say it was a blessing that she had “passed,” that she wasn’t sick or in pain anymore. I didn’t understand that for a long time. If it was such a blessing why were they always crying?
Eventually life settled back into a pattern and I grew to be old enough to take stock of it. My family wasn’t rich so life was a lot of work. I didn’t remember life being any other way but I heard the stories other people told and saw the shows on TV that mimicked the way things used to be. We may not have been rich like some people but we did have a house in the suburbs to live in and a garden so we ate most of the time. Some people couldn’t say that, especially those in the heart of the cities.
Dad was considered a “necessary worker” so he never got drafted or sent to a work camp. Mom used to be a teacher but she lost her job when she was pregnant with me. After that she decided to save the cost of day care and after school care and stayed home. Plus someone needed to keep an eye on the garden to keep the raiders out of it. Back then there was also something called public assistance and my parents didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It seems if you belonged to a union you were put at the top of something called a role to get money that other people worked for or you received food from the government if there was any in the warehouses.
My parents didn’t want the unions or the government to tell them what to do, when to do it, and who to do it with. If you were on the public assistance then they could come in and out of your house whenever they wanted and they could tell you how many kids you could have and where your kids had to go to school and lots of other things like that. You had to report everything to the government so that they could tell you how much public assistance you got.
My father said it was no one’s business what we had and what we didn’t; that it was hard enough keeping the government out of your business without inviting them in by taking money from them. So, no unions. My mother didn’t renew her teacher’s union membership even when they offered to keep her on for free. My father refused to join the union where he worked and since he was the kind of man you didn’t bother, they finally left him alone about it.
I suppose it was a hard life full of harsh rules but I never knew any different so to me it was normal. The people here tell me that I was deprived, that if my parents hadn’t been so selfish and would have let social services help we would have been much better off. They never go so far as to say my family would still be alive if only … but they leave that idea hanging in the air like I’m supposed to buy it and come up with it on my own. But no matter how they spin it I don’t believe it. Nothing could have saved my family and if I had been one of those spoiled kids I would have died like so many others did.
When I was eight something nasty got released in the world. I didn’t know exactly what until I got here and started taking history classes. It seems that a baggage handler had bobbled when he should have weaved and dropped a suitcase belonging to a terrorist who was transporting samples of a weaponized virus. By the time the airplane landed everyone on the plane was infected including the pilots and airline stewards. When everyone caught their connecting flights they took a little extra something with their carry ons to share. Within the month the virus had spread around the globe.
At first it was like the doomsday clock had been started and only minutes were left. People were rioting in the streets and scared of their own shadows. Experts claimed the virus was ninety percent fatal. Well the problem with so-called experts is that they’re more often wrong than right no matter what their own ego tells them. The really lethal version of the virus, the stuff that came out of the original sample containers, was just too lethal and burnt out too quickly to spread effectively. What did spread was a less lethal mutation that had a longer incubation period. This created a “wave” effect which meant that while a lot of people got sick, not as many got sick at the same time. And of those that got sick, fewer of them died. Most of those that lived didn’t get off scott free however and I’ll get to that eventually.
My big brother died at the beginning of the second wave. Again I heard my parents say what a blessing it had been. He’d been dying a very painful death as his lungs filled with fluid and his internal organs shut down. Then my father got sick at the end of the second wave and it took him a really long time to die. Technically it happened at the beginning of the third wave but I’ll always know the truth.
Mom didn’t say it was a blessing that time. In fact she didn’t say anything at all because she’d caught the sickness too while taking care of him. I don’t remember much about how things went, if I was alone and if so for how long, how I ate, or anything except for the day they drew their last breaths. I’d come to know and understand what death was by then. I’d seen too much of it. I also knew from the TV if death was in your house you were supposed to call a series of numbers on your phone and then hang up; you didn’t have to say anything, just hang up. If they called back and you didn’t answer they would send someone out to help. This was supposed to be so that people too sick or who were alone and knew they were dying could call and help the authorities do what was necessary. It was billed as responsible citizenship.
The next thing I clearly remember is some guys dressed in space suits busting in the door with a small battering ram. There were people with guns too and they ran from room to room while I simply stared at them. After they saw there was no one left but me the guys with guns went outside to guard things. The spacesuits didn’t even bother looking at me after that. They just started writing on a clipboard and then took my parents to a big refrigerated truck that was outside. When they finally got around to noticing me I did get scared.
I knew I wasn’t dead and part of me knew my parents weren’t in the bodies that had been carried away. They were gone to Heaven to be with my sister and brother and that was supposed to be a blessing. What I didn’t understand was why I hadn’t been allowed to go. Part of me wanted to ask the people in the space suits but part of me had gone away although I didn’t realize it. I wanted to just go with my parents’ bodies but at the same time some spark in me fought it tooth and nail.
Then some people showed up outside and they seemed angry and tired and were yelling at everyone for making things more complicated by not taking me out and having me ready and all the paperwork filled out. Right then something let go of the last bit of my old self and when this half-crazy woman stomped into the house trying to jerk my arm to make me go with her I turned into a feral kid whose mind was mostly a confused mess of nothing but anger and instinct. I fought tooth and nail and when I bit the hand that was trying to drag me out the woman drew back like she was going to belt me one.
Before she could a guy in a funny uniform with a mask and respirator on his face pushed her away. I remember he was really angry but I can’t remember about what exactly, all I knew was that it wasn’t at me. I can still hear that guy shouting at the social working to shut up and if she raised a hand to me again she’d be off to a work camp as fast as he could arrange it. The woman was outraged but I could see fear on her face as well. The lesson I learned from that was power and control didn’t always mean the one that could hit the hardest.
I can’t remember what the guy’s face looked like through the mask but I remember his hands. His voice sounded funny coming out of the intercom on the respirator. “It’s all right kid. I have to go to Central anyway so you’ll come in the truck. Now let’s get you some stuff packed up.”
He took my school backpack and dumped everything out. Then he went around the house putting things in it. He pulled the album that had the DVDs with our family pictures on them and put it in there. He stuck in the family Bible that had all of the different papers stuck between the pages. He took a bag from the kitchen and put the few pieces of jewelry my mother had in it; that was stuck deep in the inside zipper of the pack. A lady that was with him put a couple of changes of clothes and some personal hygiene items in there like my toothbrush and hairbrush. I took my wind up music box and my Barbie doll and also shoved in all of the clothes my mother had sewed for her. When they weren’t looking I went into my brother’s room and took his slingshot that he used to keep the birds out of the garden and then into my parents’ room. I didn’t know what I was doing but someone … or Some One … must have been guiding me. I took the tin that my mother kept her hair clips in, a couple of her hair scarfs that she always wore, and then my father’s utility belt that he always wore to work. I barely had time to hide that stuff in the back pack before the man found me.
“There you are.” He bent down beside me and said, “Better put this sweater on, it’s cool out there today.” I don’t know why I trusted him but I did. I think sometimes you just know.
I don’t remember leaving the house. I don’t remember getting in the truck that followed the one that held the bodies. I do remember getting out of the truck because the guy stopped me and got down on my level. “Now, the place you’re going to is rowdy and some of those kids play rough, most of them are from the inner city. I wouldn’t leave you here but all of the other holding stations are full.” He put my back pack into my hands. “This is yours, just like your jacket and your shoes. They don’t belong to anyone else, just you. Don’t let those kids take it from you and don’t give it to any of the adults to hold either because they won’t even if they say they will. What’s yours is yours to be responsible for. And when it is dinner time, fight for your share; you’ll have to or you’ll go hungry. And … and don’t get backed into a corner, especially not by any of the boys. Just don’t.” I listened to his voice and it was like words were being written into a secret place inside of me.
The woman that had packed my clothes said, “She’s out of it. I doubt she even understands half of what you are saying.”
I remember he took my arm and said, “Oh she understands. And she’ll remember. Won’t you kid?” For the first and last time I looked into that masked face, tried so hard to see what was behind it, but not seeing his eyes all I did was nod.
As the uniforms walked away a couple of new people in medical scrubs walked forward and I was shepherded into the next phase of my life.