“Do something, Andy.” - Editor
by Len Dawson
A few days ago I would have enjoyed standing out on our sixth-floor balcony in the mild autumn weather and warm midday sunshine, but now I’m watching for those fiends to come back.
An old lady in the street below me stumbles among the bodies, as though she’s stoned, but she’s blinded, another casualty of the virus. I hear a noise and look off in the distance. I know that she heard it too because she turns her head in the direction of the car that’s careening towards her.
Ask me how can I stand here and watch what’s happening and do nothing to help and I won’t have an answer, except to say that I’m scared. I want to yell to the old woman, to warn her that the car isn’t going to stop, but I don’t because I don’t want the brutes in that car to know we’re up here. I don’t want them to come looking for us.
Now, four of them are out of the car walking among the bodies. When they find a live one, they beat it so viciously I can hear the sounds six floors above them. It reminds me of a documentary I saw as a child that showed seal hunters killing baby seals with clubs. The commotion startles a flock of crows feeding on the bodies, the raucous sounds they make as they take flight mingling with the laughter of the car people. I go back inside and close the balcony door to shut it out because it all leaves me feeling helpless, frightened, and nauseous.
For all the scary talk about new diseases, and virulent mutations, and drug resistant strains, no one saw this coming, and by the time they realized what was happening, the virus had spread too far. So many people are blind and need help now that there aren’t enough of us left with eyesight to care for them. It’s death that answers their calls for help.
I go sit on the couch because I need some rest. I hope that the exhaustion I feel is from stress and lack of sleep, not the onset of the virus. I haven’t slept much since my wife Mary got the fever because I’m consumed with anger thinking about her lying in the bedroom burning up with a fever that will take away her eyesight, when others, like those murderous bastards outside, are some of the lucky few who are immune to the virus.
I think about the people who were out of town when it hit. So many people travel these days and so many people tried to flee. I wonder what happens to the ones who wake up blind in unfamiliar surroundings with no one to help them. And all those hospital patients out there; what happens when they call for help and no one comes?
So I think the ones who were at home when the fever hit are the lucky ones, because even if they’re blind they can find food. Then I remember the electricity. There won’t be any heat with the electricity off. The water pumps must have backup power, but they’ll stop soon too, and when the clean water’s gone, diseases like cholera and dysentery will sweep through the cities claiming their own victims.
And what about people like me who can still see? We’re doomed to witness the horrors that lie ahead for the ones who are blind, so I think the ones who die are the lucky ones. But that thought leads to madness, because then I think about killing Mary. I contemplate the act, wondering how I would do it, wondering if I could do it. And would it be an act of mercy, or an excuse to rid myself of her because she’s a liability? I’m sure I could escape the city on my own, but I’m afraid I won’t make it if I bring her with me. I’m angry for thinking of leaving her. I get up and look for something to do to drive these thoughts out of my head.
My eyes have started to itch. It scares me because, before the television went off the air, the experts said that it’s an early symptom of the virus. And they said that once the fever takes hold, you slip into a comatose state in a matter of hours that can last for several days. That’s what happened to Mary. Now I worry that we could fall prey to the fiends roaming the streets below if I succumb to the virus. I have to get us out of the city before the fever strikes me down. Mary is still delirious with the fever but I’m determined to leave within the hour. I’ll carry her to the car if I have to. We’ll go look for her family upstate.
Now I understand why she tried for years to get me to leave the city. Rural communities are made up of friends and relatives who, regardless of their differences, will come to each other’s aid. But in the cities, where our survival can depend on the goodwill of strangers, people have always been wary of them, and it’s worse now because any one of them could be a carrier of the virus. The disenfranchised and disillusioned have always been drawn together by poverty and pushed together by population pressures. Now groups of them roam the streets looking for revenge.
I hear Mary stirring. She calls out my name. She’s scared; I hear it in her voice, so I hurry to the bedroom. “I’m here, hon.”
As I enter the room she sits up and says, “I can’t see, Andy.”
Her voice is shaky. I’ve never seen her look so frail, but even after running a high fever for two days, she’s still beautiful. Her flawless complexion is pale, but the classic lines of her nose and mouth are as finely sculpted and delicate as the day we met. Makeup is smeared around the eyes that once drew me in but now appear lifeless, and sweat from her fever has soaked the sheets causing her soft, black hair to hang in damp clumps against her face.
She puts her arms out to grab me as I get close to her. I lie to her; tell her that it’s going to be okay. The lie is easy and makes me feel better, but she continues to shake. She feels small and vulnerable. She squeezes my arm so hard that I flinch, as she pleads with me to take her to a hospital. I sit down on the bed next to her and try to put my arm around her, to comfort her, but she pushes me away, urgency and anger in her voice. “I’m not kidding. I need to get to a hospital.”
When I ask her if she remembers what was on the news before she got sick, I feel her body become tense. “You’re not gonna take me to the hospital, are you?”
I ask her if she remembers the early reports about the virus in Asia.
“Is that what happened to me?”
I don’t have the courage to tell her the truth, so I tell her that the CDC said the infection rate is over ninety percent.
“But the blindness, it’s just temporary, isn’t it?”
To answer the question is to take her eyesight from her and the finality of it distresses me, so, like a coward, I evade her question. “You’ve had a raging fever for two days.”
“Answer me, Andy?”
I give in and tell her the truth, but it hurts me to do it. “There is no cure.”
She yells, “No,” then begins to hit me with her fists like an angry child, stopping moments later, as if she has just remembered something. I watch her stand up, grasping at the sir until she latches onto the headboard to steady herself.
She looks in my general direction. “I don’t care what you heard on TV, I have to get to a hospital.”
“There are no hospitals.”
She snaps at me. “Of course there are hospitals.”
The experts had debated over where it came from, and why it was so virulent, and why it attacked the optic nerve, but all of their talk came to nothing. I hear myself telling her that the doctors and nurses were blinded too.
Then her anger flares again. “But, you can see, can’t you?”
I feel guilty, feel like I should apologize, so I reach over to take her hand and pull her back onto the bed with me, but she draws her hand away, as though I burned her.
She tells me to call nine-one-one, and when I hesitate she yells, “Damn it, Andy, call nine-one-one.”
“I tried that, and I tried every hospital and every doctor in the phone book. I’m not even sure the phones work any more. I hear the dial tone and I hear it ring, but no one answers.”
“What about the cell phone?”
I nod out of habit, then, realizing my mistake, I tell her that I tried that too.
“What are they saying on TV?”
“There is no TV. The electricity’s off. I think the grid crashed.”
“I don’t give a shit about the stupid grid, Andy. I need a doctor.”
I wish I could think of something to say to ease her distress but I can’t. After she calms down a little, she asks me what I heard before the power went off.
“The television stations all showed warnings telling people to stay indoors to avoid the virus. They just let them repeat until the power went off.”
Mary backs up toward me until her legs hit the edge of the mattress. Then she sits down on the bed, landing hard, as though she’s defeated, and I feel like I failed her as a man because I couldn’t protect her. Once again I reach for her, and once again she struggles, but not as hard as before.
I hold on tighter this time, and before I realize that I’m opening a door I can’t close, I say, “I’m gonna take you someplace safe.”
“Safe? What the hell does that mean?”
“There are some very bad people roaming the streets…”
She interrupts me. “Maybe they know where we can find a doctor.”
While I wonder how much I should tell her, she asks me how I know they’re bad. “Because I stood on our balcony and watched them killing people in the street below.”
She shakes her head slowly. “They wouldn’t get away with that.”
“Mary, there’s no one left to stop them.”
As she stands there and shakes her head at me, I try very hard to think of a way to convince her, but I can’t, so I decide to take her out on the balcony and show her. I warn her to be quiet, tell her that our lives depend on it. Then I lead her out of the bedroom, walking backwards because the hallway is too narrow for us to walk side by side. Mary bumps into the hall table, knocking over a porcelain vase that was valuable just a few days ago. The noise startles her when it hits the floor and shatters. I kick the pieces aside so she won’t step on them because her feet are bare.
I remind her to be quiet before I slide the door open and lead her carefully out onto the balcony. Day or night, the sound of traffic has always been a constant for us, but the muffled, indistinct cries of injured and dying people are the background noise in this perverse, new version of the city.
I feel Mary’s body twitch when an injured man cries out for help. She pleads with me. “Do something, Andy.”
It’s spooky the way the car people seem to respond to her. They come out of the building across the street, their laughter jarring my nerves as they search through the injured for signs of life. They beat everyone, even the ones that aren’t moving and may already be dead; the sounds of bones breaking as crisp and clear as the sound of snapping twigs on a forest path. Even the muffled sound of a baseball bat connecting with flesh carries all the way up to our balcony. I take Mary back inside when she begins to sob, pulling her away from the windows so they can’t see us.
Then I scurry about the apartment gathering the things I think we’ll need for the trip upstate, while Mary sits on the couch without moving or talking, as though she’s slipped into a coma. I pack some medicine and enough food for a couple of days in a small backpack because I’ll need my hands free to help her.
My eyes still itch and I’m getting congested and a little lightheaded, so I take cold pills, double the dose, and put the rest of them in my pocket. Thinking maybe I can keep the fever and the blindness at bay by staying awake, I bring a baggie full of coffee grounds to chew on.
When I’ve packed everything I think we’ll need, I guide Mary into the hallway without bothering to close the door because we won’t be coming back. This is the only place we’ve ever lived, but I don’t stop for a last look because Mary can’t share it with me.
I thank God that we live on the sixth floor and not any higher because, with the electricity out, the elevators aren’t working. At first, the light from our apartment spilling into the hallway helps me to see, but once we’re in the stairwell, it’s as black for me as it is for Mary, blacker than any night I can remember. She doesn’t know that it’s dark in the stairwell, but I don’t feel right complaining to her about it. I hold the railing as I guide her down the stairs, but in the absolute blackness of the stairwell, she could just as easily be helping me, so it takes us a long time to get down the twelve flights of stairs to the lobby.
There’s a young boy in the lobby, sitting by himself on the floor leaning against a wall. I guess that he’s only about eight years old. He hears us and looks in our direction, but his eyes don’t meet mine because he too is blind. He looks frightened but I have very little strength and compassion beyond what I’ll need for Mary, and yet I can’t leave him behind for the car people to find. I take Mary over to the boy. He’s dirty and smells of urine because he’s soiled himself. I know he hears me approaching because he tries to crawl away. When I touch his shoulder, he begins to hit me but I manage to get hold of his arms.
He sounds as small and scared as he looks, begging me not to hurt him as he tries to pull free of my grip.
When I assure him that he’s safe with us he begins to cry, telling us between sobs that he’s hungry, so I take off the backpack to get him something to eat. I put a piece of bread in his hands and, while he eats it, I tell him that I’m going to get our car; that we’re going someplace safe and that we’ll take him with us.
Then I take one of his hands and put it in my wife’s hands. “This is Mary. You stay here with her and be very quiet.”
I lie to them; tell them that I’ll find someone who can help them when we get upstate. I may be signing our death warrant by taking the boy with us, but how can I leave him behind?
I go to the glass entryway at the front of the building to look outside. Those fiends are still out there and I try not to think about what they’ll do to us if they catch us. They’re looking the other way, busy with something and I don’t want to think of what it might be. Our car is parked on the street between them and me. It would be an easy, short walk any other day but I’m so scared that it might as well be death’s own doorway I have to walk through. My legs feel watery and weak. I’m unsure of my feet but I push the door open anyway.
I crouch low and move very carefully along behind the parked cars until I get to our car. I’ll have to walk around the car and I’ll be out in the open when I do. I check to be sure that they’re not looking then take a deep breath before I walk around the car, unlocking the driver’s door with the key so the car won’t beep. Then I open the door slowly and get in, slouching in the seat so I’m below the window, pulling the door closed without latching it.
I need a moment to calm my nerves. I take another cold pill and some pain pills, chewing them up and swallowing them dry. Before starting the car I think about getting Mary and the boy from the lobby to the car and I don’t see how it’s possible. When I start the car, they’ll hear it and come for me. Faced with that prospect, it’s very hard for me to summon the courage to move and when I do, I sit up just enough to peek out the window. They’re looking around and I’m afraid that I’ve missed my chance. I’m tempted to drive away. I tell myself that they might follow me; that I could lead them away from Mary and the boy; that I could come back later, but I’m afraid that’s not what would happen. I’m afraid that I might not come back.
The car starts easily and they hear it. They’re looking in my direction. I gun the engine, swerving out into the road, then around a body and onto the sidewalk in front of the lobby. I stop the car with the passenger doors right next to the lobby entrance. That’ll make it easier to get Mary and the boy in the car. But I’ll have to go around the car to get them, and again when I come back, and I’ll be out in the open when I do.
Those fiends are close now and they’re coming fast. I won’t have enough time to get both Mary and the boy in the car, so I decide to leave the boy. I hit the unlock button on the door handle as I get out of the car so I can open the passenger door when I come back with Mary. My legs tremble. I have to will them to move because I’m afraid that time has run out for us.
As I run around the front of the car, I spot a man carrying a tire iron running toward me. He’s closing the distance between us quickly, too quickly, so I stop and begin to backup. Then he shudders and lurches forward, as though someone has given him a body block. As a grisly looking mass of viscera erupts from his chest, I hear a pop from somewhere off in the distance. I freeze next to the driver’s door and scan the buildings, spotting movement high up on a balcony a block away. I hear the gun again and see another one of the car people drop as his head explodes.
The shooter must have a scope on his rifle to be so accurate at such a distance; probably one of those survivalists. There was a time when I would’ve called someone like that a nut case, but now I want to yell out, “Kill the bastards,” and I would if he wasn’t too far away to hear me.
The last of the car people are crouched down behind parked cars watching the shooter. It’s their turn to cower in fear. There’s some satisfaction in that.
I force myself to walk around the car the last few feet to the lobby door. One of the car people sees me and we lock eyes for a moment. It gives me a chill, but he doesn’t come out of his hiding place. The shooter has bought us some time, and probably saved our lives.
I’m reaching for the lobby door when I’m hit in the back with such force that I’m slammed against the lobby window. At first I’m confused because I didn’t think anyone was that close to me. I assume that the man with the tire iron did it, but then I remember his chest exploding. As I slump to the ground, I see blood smear the window and I know that it’s mine, and I realize that the man with the rifle thought I was one of the car people.Lying on the sidewalk, my blood pooling around me as my nightmare descends, I see Mary and the boy through the lobby window and I’m afraid for them.