I could hear their shrieks through the closed windows. Dozens of them stalked the streets, day and night. I was one of the few left who wasn’t sick.
Unclosed doors smacked their frames in the breeze, whispering the story of their past tenants. Mowed lawns sprouted patches of overgrown grass. Blood was strewn across fences, and if any part of the victim survived, their screams lingered in the throats of the beasts they soon became. They lived on through the Sickness that devoured the world within months. And instead of fleeing like so many others, I stayed, watching the world end from my second-floor apartment.
Gazing past the reflection of my wild short hair and tired eyes, I spotted a red stain on the blacktop—the remains of a man, now nothing more than scattered guts.
What used to be a woman halted in my line of sight, sniffing the air. Its gnarled black hair sat on its head like an unkempt bush, its tattered clothes muddied. Thick, blackened veins snaked down its back from a swollen mass on its shoulder.
The sickly creature hollered, the straining sound leading into a hacking cough. Falling to its knees, it licked the week-old dried blood. More Sicklies came. This was an everyday thing. And every day, with every lick, the proof of that poor man’s existence dwindled.
I glanced over my shoulder, seeing the small white Chihuahua jump from the couch and scurry to the kitchen.
Moments later, a clatter came from the neighboring apartment, followed by the sound of shuffling.
Jesus, an older man, lived next door to me. Before the Sickness, our relationship didn’t extend past first names, though he always got mine wrong—in his defense, Paul did sound a lot like John. Now that it was just us, I think he appreciated my company.
Taking three steps from my bedroom to the living room, I swiped the puzzle book and pen from the coffee table; the sprawled out newspapers shifted with the swift movement.
I used to see Jesus with his face in puzzle books all the time. I found this book displaced in the hall the day I decided to lock myself away. Every crossword was finished, all but the last one—the one Jesus and I had been working on for weeks.
I knocked on the wall next to the television, readying my partner for the question.
A tired groan answered.
“Alright,” I said, staring at the crossword puzzle, several answers already filled. “Same one as yesterday: seven down—five-letter word for ‘reality’.”
He didn’t respond.
I knocked again. “You there?”
Nothing but a muffled grunt.
Sighing, I tossed the book and pen back on the table. “Fine. We’ll try later.”
The room dimmed as the sun descended. Jagger came running from the kitchen and jumped on the couch. I caught a whiff of his business as the aroma marinated in the musty air. Proper garbage disposal being the least of my worries, I gathered the used pee pads and opened the window to drop them to the pile of trash on the sidewalk below. Nearby Sicklies pounced at the sign of movement, only to grunt angrily the moment they realized it wasn’t a meal. Desperate bastards.
After closing the window, I joined Jagger on the couch. Scanning the newspapers in front of me, their headlines seemed like a joke, an implausible, yet clearly possible joke. I kept them because, well, I didn’t know why I kept them. Maybe it was because it was funny, in its own way, and when it was all over, I could look back at these newspapers and try to pretend something as ludicrous couldn’t possibly have happened. But it did. And I didn’t know when it’d be over.
Dec. 15, 2019: UNKNOWN FLU-LIKE VIRUS REPORTED IN US
Feb. 25, 2020: GIANT HORNETS ARRIVE IN US—ARE THEY DANGEROUS?
April 4, 2020: AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR AMONG FEVER VIRUS AND BUZZER VICTIMS
The virus started overseas, brought back to America one way or another. Nobody knew for sure. It wasn’t like the United States was the only country hit. Hell, there were probably multiple points of origin, infecting different regions of the globe simultaneously, bit by bit, until the ratio of sick to healthy leaned more towards the former. There were even conspiracy theories about rats, as if this was the second coming of the Bubonic Plague or something, completely disregarding the obvious disconnections between the two viruses. Fear induces a lot of irrationality.
When the hornets came, people put two and two together, even if two and two didn’t belong together, and swore it was terrorism. If someone became infected with the Fever virus and was then stung by a Buzzer, they turned into an aggressive lunatic with the sniffles and a severely bad cough. It seemed too coincidental, but then again, what did it matter? People got sick, people changed, and people died. Conspiracy theories wouldn’t cure the Sickness. Conspiracy theories were a luxury of the past, or for old men to mumble about to their grandchildren, if there were any old men left anyway.
Footsteps stole my attention. I shot a look at the door. They weren’t loud, or fast-coming, or panicked. They were faint and cautious, as if the person wasn’t trying to be heard by anyone who wasn’t really paying attention.
Jagger growled, his small, pointy ears twitching at the sound.
Standing, I walked over to the door and peeked through the peephole. A woman stepped into view, her hair cut short, her cheeks rosy, her clothes soiled. My eyes fell to the jiggling doorknob. I stepped back, watching, waiting, silent.
She knocked. Again. And again.
“I know you’re in there,” she said. “I can hear your dog.”
I said nothing.
“I saw you throw garbage out of your window,” she said in a small voice. “Please. There are so many of those things out there.”
My nails dug into my palms as I balled fists, inwardly wishing the woman away. I couldn’t risk exposing myself to the Sickness. Just because she didn’t seem sick didn’t mean she was healthy. She could’ve been asymptomatic. She could’ve been stung by a Buzzer. She could’ve been one of those things in a matter of minutes. Opening the door would be signing my death warrant.
Another knock. “I’m begging you—please.”
A loud thump from my right made me yelp.
Jesus had been listening the entire time, every word riling him up until he gained the strength to pound at the wall. He hollered, then coughed violently.
The woman on the other side of the door gasped at the sickly sounds. After a moment of hesitance, she fled.
I waited, listening to her footfalls get farther and farther away until they vanished. Sighing in relief, I cursed at myself for not locking the stairwell doors when I had the chance. Hopefully Jesus did enough to scare her away for good. Maybe I’d block the entrance tomorrow, if not every threshold, at least the ones on my floor.
The key to survival wasn’t in numbers, no matter what the media always claimed. More people meant more to keep track of meant more to care for meant more mouths to feed. I was fine feeding Jagger and myself.
Even though the woman had left, Jesus kept at it, screeching, scratching, and flinging himself at the wall.
“Jesus, that’s enough,” I said. “She’s gone.”
He didn’t stop.
I pounded my fist where I thought he was, shouting, “Enough, I said! Stop!”
His shrieking loudened. He clawed at the barrier between us faster and faster, his slobbering noises making me cringe.
Jagger hid under the coffee table.
Darkness crept in slowly until it swallowed the room. I continued staring at the wall despite looking at nothing but the blackness in front of me.
Jesus’ attempts at getting to me declined to grunts and the occasional screech as he walked the length of his apartment—the length of the wall separating us.
I bit my lip, suddenly missing the sound of that woman’s voice—a normal voice. A voice that spoke back. A voice belonging to someone whose existence wasn’t meant to destroy mine.
Jesus hollered again before making a grunting noise, as if he were clearing his throat.
I sighed and shoved my hand into my pants pocket to retrieve my ear plugs. Stuffing them into my ears, I walked to the couch to lie down. There was nothing left to do but wait for him to stop.
Muffled barking startled me awake. The room was lit by the morning sun. I sat up, removing the earplugs, to see Jagger facing the door, standing alert. He barked again. I waited, listening to what he heard.
Footsteps, slow and clumsy.
I scrambled to my feet, hurrying to the door. Stuffing the earplugs back into my pocket, I peeked through the peephole. My heart leapt.
It was the woman! But something seemed…off. Her hair was disheveled, her once rosy cheeks now pale, her clothes ripped and drenched in sweat. Her head was turned right, as if she were looking down the hall.
She knocked. “Hello? Are you still there?” she asked in a tremulous voice. “I’m so scared.”
My fingers twitched at the thought of opening the door. This could be my last chance. She didn’t seem sick. I could risk it. I could. It could be us against the world.
I reached for the deadbolt.
The woman entered a coughing fit. When she stopped, she cleared the phlegm from the back of her throat, then knocked again—harder this time. “Please.”
My arm dropped to my side at the distortion in her voice. It was small but distinct, like a growl. I peered through the peephole again.
Craning her neck, the woman rolled her shoulders. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. My suspicion proved true when she turned her head left.
Her cheek was swollen to the size of a golf ball, the small red dot of a sting wound at the center, the surrounding tissue inflamed. Black veins branched from the wound, spreading across her face.
She grunted, hitting herself in the head over and over as she clenched her eyes shut. “Please!” she shouted. Her voice became something else—something monstrous. “Open up!”
Movement came from Jesus’ apartment. He screeched, then punched the wall.
The woman drove her shoulder into the door. Again—again—again! She wouldn’t stop.
Jagger barked from the couch behind me.
My stomach hardened. I fought to swallow the lump in my throat, listening to the woman’s voice devolve into ghastly, guttural sounds that mixed with Jesus’ shrieks, forming an inharmonious duet. The voice I once craved to hear was a voice no more.
I turned and walked away, my gaze falling to the puzzle book still sitting on the coffee table when I got to the couch. The hint my former acquaintance and I had been stuck on for more than a few days glared back at me.
Glancing at the door, the hideous resonance of the creatures’ sounds echoing through the room, the once unknown answer, whether it was what the puzzle wanted or not, now ached in my chest. I picked up the pen.
When I finished writing, I stared at the five spaces, each letter burning in my mind to create a truth that wasn’t only my reality but also the rest of the world’s: ALONE.
After putting the pen back down on the coffee table, I fished in my pocket for the earplugs and shoved them into my ears. Sitting on the couch, I leaned back and closed my eyes, waiting for the noise to end, waiting for it all to end.