Aftermath

By Joy Kennedy-O'Neill

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

They came at all hours of the day and night. They scraped along the side of the house, moaned at the doors, ran their fingernails over the boards. Lindy cried and acted out—who could blame her? We had to be quiet. When the power went out we had candles; when the gas went out we had blankets. Our world got smaller and smaller. And colder. By late December, they were breaking in. Cal protected us as best as he could—he aimed for their eyes with his arrows; he aimed for their throats with the sword.

But there were too many of them. And not just the Infected either; there were looters too. The sick and the non-sick alike were trying to kill us. We moved up to attic.

Cal had already prepared everything. He had made a rain-tight hatch for the roof that we could open and let light in, when the weather wasn't too frigid. He had drilled peepholes and ventilation tubes. He had paints and colors for Lindy to draw on the low-hanging rafters, and he had hidden little toys for her to find in nooks. We had games. The attic stairs could be easily pulled up and secured behind us. He had black-out covers for every hole, window, and gap.

We even had a hand-crank radio that was our only link to the outside. Every nation had the flu. It was a pandemic. That December we learned about the quarantine camps for the Infected. In January we learned about the military bombing those camps: New York, L.A., Chicago, San Antonio. . . . We heard about North Korea using a nuclear bomb on China. The dust from the bomb was making the winter even colder.

In February we heard about a rebel group of survivors across the border who were refusing to hide. They were fighting.


Today my student Maria is as haughty and beautiful as ever. After class a man is waiting for her outside and I do a double take. He looks like Felix Narvaez, the leader of the Mexican rebel survivors, the man for whom Tres de Julio will forever be known.

"This is mi tío," Maria tells me proudly.

"Hello, pleased to meet you," Felix Narvaez says in perfect English and shakes my hand.

I'm dumfounded. I had heard rumors that he was setting up a business on the Texas coast, but here? In our town? Students walk by staring at him and tittering. A few people are waiting nearby for autographs.

"My niece tells me that she enjoys your class."

"Thank you."

His dark hair is tinged with grey. His teeth are gleaming and perfect. Like Maria, he is tall and stands straight. They share the posture of the victorious. It's true—he looks like Zorro. I think of the famous picture of him as he stood his ground on the Reynosa Bridge in McAllen, Texas: his right hand holding a rifle, his left hand making the peace sign. They say his legs straddled the Rio Grande and his heart straddled two worlds: he embraced both the living and dead.

"Mr. Narvaez, it's such an honor to meet you. What are you doing here in Lake Jackson?"

"I am starting my shipping business nearby, in Freeport."

"He knows how to get food and gas," Maria says. "You need anything, he's the go-to hombre."

"I have workers here on campus." He motions to a flatbed truck in the empty parking lot full of cardboard boxes, crates of bottled water, and baskets of fruit. "My people have just signed the contract for food services here, and for the main supply runs in the county."

"That's wonderful."

I've already heard the rumors that Felix Narvaez can get anything; that he used to be a higher-up in the Los Zetas cartel before the epidemic. He claims that he was "a simple farmer" but everyone knows that he had access to weapons, lots of them, and when the plague broke out he saved all the Non-Infected that he found, from Monterrey to Reynosa. They moved as a unit up towards the border on horseback, in ATVS, in trucks towing wagons—mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children, all hungry and dreaming of getting to the Valley, that Eden of grapefruit, oranges, tangelos, melons, and cattle. From there they dreamed of rebuilding San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston. In each town along the way it was Felix Narvaez who kicked the doors down, saved the Non-Infected, and fought off the Turners either by hand or by bullet. But when they reached the Rio Grande they were met by four thousand Infected who had shambled from McAllen, Mission, Edinberg, and other border towns until they reached the river mindlessly. The water was a natural barrier that had them shuffling aimlessly along the banks. Aimless, that is, until they smelled the fresh flesh of Narvaez's people. They groaned in hunger. They say that the sound of that groaning hoard shook the walls in McAllen. They say that birds flew away. They say that the water in the Rio Grande trembled. It was here where Felix Narvaez met the horde head-on, on the Reynosa International Bridge, on the third of July.

"I saw you on the broadcast from New York," I said. There had been a parade for him on the first anniversary, down what was left of Wall Street. The President had given him a medal.

"Ah," he shrugs modestly. "Sí." He looks at me and it is as though he is looking right into me. I can tell that he has already pegged me for a Mole, and I smile widely so he can see my teeth. I'm blushing. I take off my ugly black-rimmed glasses and pretend to wipe the thick lenses.

"It was nice to meet you," I say, and he actually gives me a short bow. The mayor of the town and college's Board of Regents are clasping his hand, patting his back, moving him towards the college's entrance sign to pose for pictures. The deans smile for the cameras with closed lips. Feliz Narvaez and Maria make the peace sign. I take my bike from the rack and Señor Narvaez is still watching me.

I race home, pedaling like I'm pumping the blood back into my heart.


Winter went on forever. By March it had even snowed. We used the roof's hatch to get fresh air and turn out our buckets of refuse, "night-soil" as they used to call it. When we ran out of water Cal made furtive trips to the pond in the backyard. We boiled a half gallon at a time using Sterno cans.

The Infected never stopped. They shambled outside and even dug through our shit. We slept a lot and ate very little. Lindy had regressed into speaking baby talk.

"Do you think she'll remember this?" Cal asked.

"I hope not."

"She could turn into a writer and write a book about it. It could be like The Diary of Anne Frank."

"There are a million Anne Franks out there right now," I said.

Cal sang to her softly and held her hand. When he finished, he said "I need to leave for more supplies."

"That's crazy!" I whispered. "You'll never get through the streets."

"I've been thinking I could crawl under them, using the big drainage pipe that runs from the pond over to Second Street. There's a gas station there, and an office supply store. I know the store had vending machines and I bet more food was in the employee lounge. "

I begged him not to go. I told him we had enough to last a few more months, and that he was just bored and starting to get careless. But he left.


"I don't get people's fascination with Felix Narvaez," Cal says. "There were hundreds of other people who did similar things: Laurent de Gaulle in France, Anahi Mendez in Bolivia, that Chinese woman who saved all the children in her province . . ."

"But Felix Narvaez is ours. He's our country's war hero."

"It wasn't a war. It was a virus. Besides, the cure was being distributed that same day. It would have been a national day of celebration with or without him."

I don't argue with him but I'm annoyed. We have power and I'm at my computer. I don't know why I do it, but I open up a file that has a picture that I took of Cal a few weeks after the cure.

"Who is that?" he asks, leaning over.

"It's you."

Cal jumps. "Bullshit."

The picture shows a gaunt figure on the bed. The eyes are hollow, sunken. The gums are pulled back from the teeth. An IV tube of antibiotics and fluids snakes over his arm. "That's you. That's a few days after I found you at the rescue center."

"It looks like a Civil War soldier," he says, "like one of those daguerreotypes of the dead on the battlefield. Look at that beard! No, that's not me. I never grew a beard."

"Yes you did. In the attic. You stopped shaving because we didn't have any extra water. Remember?"

"No. I always shaved." He looks at the picture. "That's me all right. Look at the tattoo. But if I grew a beard that means I wasn't Infected after all. The Infected were dead—they couldn't grow hair."

"You were Infected. I saw you get sick. You grew that beard in the attic, you got sick, and four months later when I found you it was still the same length. It didn't grow any longer because you were . . ." I can't say "dead." It's true, but I can't say it to him. It's too cruel.

"I always shaved."

"Are you crazy? You got sick. You Turned."

Cal jumps up and paces the room. He walks towards Lindy's room but stops himself. "Things happen for a reason!" he says.

"What? Another quote from the Lazarus brochure?"

"Things happen for a reason!" he says again.

"Okay, so what's the reason?"

"If we hadn't had the plague, we wouldn't have had the cure. The cure is likely to prolong human life indefinitely. Just think of it, now we know how it suspends cellular decay and we know how to manipulate it. The bubonic plague had massive benefits in the fourteenth century—there were huge developments in technology, medicine, and mathematics. This plague will be the same. The sacrifice of so many people leads to better lives in the future. This virus may be the promise of an eternal life!"

His hand is resting on the doorknob to Lindy's room.

"Sacrifice? Eternal Life? You have been going to the Lazarus meetings." I walk into our bedroom and slam the door.


Cal came back to the attic. He brought some cans of food and all seemed well but two days later he began coughing. I searched him for scratch or bite marks but he was clean. We didn't know then that the virus was also airborne, and not just transmitted by salvia and bodily fluids. We had heard on the radio that some people were claiming they were bitten and didn't get sick, but we didn't understand what that meant. Now we know that the reason Moles didn't get sick was because many of them had a natural immunity, like me. And Lindy.

It had started with a random mutation that jumped from sheep to human, but who knew that plastics—plastics of all things—were responsible for the flu's gruesome effect? It's hard to believe. BPA, the chemical Bisphenol-A that is in everything from plastic bottles to Tupperware, is what the scientists call a "xenoestrogen endrocrine disruptor." It became the catalyst for the prions of the mutated ovis flu to hijack the infected brains and circulatory systems.

Our ignorance of the viral nuances proved a disaster. Families let in other survivors, who had unknowingly picked up the bug. Cal had met other people holed up in the office supply store. One of them must have been a carrier.

His fever rose. "It's probably from crawling through that freezing culvert," I said. "It's probably nothing." His face was pale and sweaty; he hadn't shaved in weeks.

"I can't Turn," he said. "I can't hurt you or Lindy. I can't be up here with you."

"You won't Turn. You'll be fine. Hush."

I fell asleep curled against him and Lindy for warmth. Some time that night I heard the attic stairs descend then pop back up.

He was gone. He had written on one of the rafters, right by Lindy's drawings. "I love you."


Cal gets into the bed during the night and holds me. "I don't like it when we fight," he whispers.

Turners say that the first thing they remember is their chest pounding when their hearts started beating again and the cold, quick breath of air back into the lungs. Some say they remember floating to a heavenly white light and being jerked back, but Cal says he remembers nothing. They can't remember the screaming or the taste of blood on their teeth, like warm copper pennies. It's up to the Non-Infected to remember. It's up to me.

The nation's economy is nearly nonexistent, and the only million-dollar selling product is a little plastic bracelet that says, "Jesus rose. Jesus forgives."

I watch Cal in the dark next to me and I want to hit him. I want to smoother him, choke him, bite him, kiss him. I hate him; I love him. He's my husband. He was Lindy's father. He saved us. He was once undead and now he's back.

"What's on your mind? Why don't you ever talk to me?" he whispers.

Surely he must know. But I say nothing and we make love instead. I think of Felix Narvaez.


Cal was gone. One day I heard shuffling below us in the garage and looked through a peephole in the attic's floor. It was him. He was standing in front of his workbench looking blankly, as if he had forgotten something. He moaned. Then he shuffled out through a broken gap in the door and joined the other Turners, slowly walking down the streets looking for blood.

Two months later Lindy and I had eaten all the dog and cat food. Cal's idea had saved our lives so far; there were people starving all over the world. I was going to have a make a plan.


Cal has erased his picture from my computer. I was looking for it this morning but it's gone. I don't blame him for not wanting a reminder of what he looked like post-infection, but it was mine. He had no right to destroy it. I check the message boards and realize that I miss the old internet, full of silly videos. The U.S. Council for Recovery has set up Neighbor-Board, the only social networking site we have, but it's not the same. There is no YouTube or video sharing. The last thing the Council wanted was someone posting old footage of attacks. The feeling I have knowing that Cal got on my computer and deleted his picture is the same one I have when I use this new "net." It feels likes some sort of violation, or censorship.

I ride my bike to work and it's a fine spring morning. There is even a sprig of green sprouting from the dirt and grit in the tank on Main Street.


I had climbed out of the roof's hatch, screaming for Lindy. The roar in my ears turned out to be planes zooming in from the horizon: crop dusters. A yellow mist came streaming out from them. One of the planes flew so close that the pilot waggled his wing tip at me. He probably thought I had been on the roof, shouting for joy.

At this same time, Felix Narvaez was on the bridge in McAllen, facing the four thousand gruesome hungry dead. He had been listening in on the radio contact between the military and heard the cure was on the way. He refused to fire on the Infected. He stopped right where he was. His people had enough fire power to destroy the whole hoard but he ordered them not to fire. Instead, they fought them off by hand until the planes soared overhead and released their loads. They could have died in their act of compassion, and they nearly did. Narvaez watched the dust settle and the slow shift of consciousness begin.

That was the day I lost Lindy. That was the day the world came back alive. It was the third of July.


This morning when I get to campus I go to the faculty break room first. Sarah, the psychology teacher, is talking with the Spanish teacher, Kay. "It's not anorexia," Sarah says, "but something near to it. I'm sure it's based on guilt and not physiology. Clinically, I'll be interested to see the long-term effects. Some of the people I'm seeing can't keep anything down, and it's not just Turners either. There is a subset of people who didn't get infected at all but are claiming that they did, and that they can't remember anything. They are also vomiting when they think of food."

Poor Sarah. Not only does she teach classes and volunteer like the rest of us, her Citizens Orders have her counseling post-traumatic shock victims. Kay sees me and clears a space for me.

"Buenos días. Cómo está?"

"Hola. Muy bien. Et tu?

"Así así," Kay smiles. She has always been something of a quiet seer. When Cal and I got married she gave me a beautiful candelabra and her handwritten note said "Something to help light your way." Kay has told me that in less than ten years more than half of the country will not speak English. I had asked her what would happen if the borders closed and the English-speakers got ticked off about being outnumbered. She had said, "Perhaps another Civil War, no? Neighbor against neighbor, yet again."

Kay listens quietly while Sarah talks about her patients. I put my lunch in the faculty fridge and excuse myself. "I have to go to the library. Adiós."

I know what I have to do. I dreamed about it last night. I dreamed I was teaching Daniel Defoe's tale of the bubonic plague, Katherine Anne Porter's tale of the 1918 flu, Albert Camus' tale of cholera, Randy Shilts's tale of HIV, Richard Preston's tale of Ebola. . . . There were so many books on the lectern that they spilled over. I leaned against a marble bust of Giovanni Boccaccio and it fell, crashing to the floor. I knelt to retrieve the pieces but found only marble feet instead, tiny and delicate, like a child's. "What will they write of us?" I asked the class. "What will they write of us?" The students tried to answer but their voices only beeped and blared like the campus emergency alerts. When I woke, I knew what I needed to do.

I've timed my visit carefully, when I know the head librarian will be there. She was a Mole. She and her husband made it out to their deer lease in West Texas where they survived on venison and canned fruit, but they ran out of heat and nearly froze in the winter. She lost two toes.

"I have something for the library," I tell her. "But not everyone should see this. Not everyone would understand."

I slide her the journal that I found in the computer lab, written by one of the Eight.

Her eyes open wide. "I heard rumors about this!" She fingers the blood-stained pages. "I'll put it in the archive," she whispers. "Only I have the key."

I nod. "Maybe later, people will want to know."

"Does it name names?"

"Yes."

"Was Cal . . ."

"No. He wasn't one of them."

I turn to leave but she has gripped my hand. Her eyes are welling up with tears and we hold hands over the circulation desk top; the granite is as cold as marble. We share the solidarity of the hidden. There is a sentence in the journal where the student wrote, "We know our families are gone but we still love them. We know hope is gone too but we still have it. We're starving. We're too weak to fight them off. Whoever finds this, please know that we were here. We hope the world makes it."


The cure stayed in the air, like magic. The sunlight made it shimmer as golden dust motes. Soon the sprayer trucks used for mosquito repellent were fogging the neighborhoods with it as well. All over the country, the hidden emerged from basements, cellars, attics, safe rooms, and offices. We were skeletal, rib-worn and pale. We squinted in the bright sunlight, like the moles that we were.


I had asked Maria if her uncle could get something for me. I whispered the name of the item in her ear, terribly embarrassed. "No problema," she said.

I thought it would come wrapped in paper or disguised in some way. But when one of Narvaez's workers on the flatbed truck hands it to me, the pink plastic is obvious. I slip the pills in my purse and give my ration card for him to slide through his handheld debit machine. Technically, what I'm doing is wrong. The President has announced a temporary ban on all birth control items, hoping to boost the recovery boom. But Narvaez's worker doesn't bat an eye. I wonder what other things Maria's uncle gets for people, legal or not.

"Hello, professor." I turn around and it is Felix Narvaez himself.

"Hi."

"Have you everything you need?"

He must know what is in my pocket. Probably nothing about his businesses escapes his attention. "Yes, thank you." He is looking at my wedding ring.

"My husband was a Turner," I say, as if that might explain anything. We watch each other and I hold my chin up, like Maria does. I too can be unrepentant.

"It must be difficult sleeping with betrayal, no?" he says.


I was nearly too weak to go find him. To be honest, I was so upset over Lindy that I didn't even look for him; it was a colleague from work who called me, telling me there was someone who looked like Cal at one of the Recovery Centers. I found him lying on an Army cot.

The medicine from the planes and foggers had cured the Infected, but many were dying. Once the body was reawakened and the immune system started working, massive infections took over. Turners had broken teeth, with bits of gristle and bone lodged in their gums. Many died from oral infections. There was a shortage of antibiotics. Cal was lucky. He would be okay. Many people had been shot or knifed; some injuries were too horrendous to be cured. People were dying all over. Non-Infected were shooting themselves, jumping off of bridges, hanging themselves in closets—they were wracked by the guilt from "putting down" an Infected love one. Imagine the ones who had shot their own children in the head and then saw the cure come sprinkling down from the sky, like a prayer answered too late?

In those early weeks of July, the Infected and the Non-Infected looked alike. We were all stuck in the lacuna of being half-alive.

Cal saw me and reached out from his cot. I instinctively backed away. He looked hurt.

"Lindy?" he asked, looking around.

"She's gone."

Cal began to wail and a volunteer nurse rushed over. "Hush," she said sternly. She knew if one person let go it would snowball from cot to cot, town to town, nation to nation—a whole world gone mad with hysteria and grief. Once it started it would never stop.

"Let's go home," I said.


Felix has asked me to dinner. I haven't given him my answer yet.

Summer is coming along nicely and the victory garden outside is producing well. I dreamt of the statues again last night but they turned into Lindy. I had left the attic to find more supplies, but she had followed behind me. I didn't know. She got too close to an opening in a window and something yanked her. I dreamt I'm trying to pull her back inside the house but the thing outside won't let her go. It sounds like an animal. There is blood. The dream goes soundless. I'm holding a statue's feet, no . . . they are Lindy's feet and they are going cold. Her little toes twitch. I feel for a pulse at an ankle. Her feet become drained of blood; they turn as white as bone, as still as stone.

Cal chews his cereal and sees me deep in thought. "What is it?"

"Nothing."

Felix has procured extra gas rations for faculty, so I get to drive the car to work. It's sunny and I put on my sunglasses—I have contact lenses now, also thanks to Felix. When I turn on the radio they are finishing a replay of the President's State of the Union speech: "To persevere is to live—to live together as one country, one nation—together in health, hope, and liberty. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness, but rather an acknowledgement of the innate need for security, survival, and the necessity of recovery. We shall all be reawakened to see a new vision of our nation . . . " After she finishes there is applause and then a John Lennon song starts playing. I listen to the chorus: "And we all shine on . . ."

I drive slowly around the commuters on bicycles and on horseback; people wave to each other and smile. I pass by the tank on Main Street and there is a tiny tree sprouting up from the turret. A cardinal warbles and sings on the strongest branch, as red as a drop of blood.

Someday maybe the world will "make it," as the writer of the Campus Eight had hoped. I don't know if it will involve remembering or forgetting. I don't know what languages our silences might speak. But maybe it will be okay. Maybe someday I will tell Cal that I dreamed of him crouched over the body of our daughter, taking bite after loving bite.


Joy Kennedy-O'Neill

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill is assistant professor of English at Brazosport College in Lake Jackson, Texas. She teaches composition and Zombie Literature. Her works have appeared in Western American Literature, ISLE, and collections such as What Wildness is This: Women Write the Southwest and To Everything on Earth.

Comments

Wow.

That is very powerful and evocative.

It is also very well thought out, weaving together strands that it very convincing.

/dps

That was incredible.

Powerful. In the beginning, I thought it would be like a thousand other zombie stories. But it's not. It's probably the most evocative, heartrending tale I've read in a long time -- zombie or not. Superb writing that built a tension I could barely stand. I kept thinking, "TELL ME what happened to Lindy! TELL ME!" Nuanced tragedy, with not all the pieces tied up neatly. I do wonder what she'll choose from here on out, how she'll ultimately cope. Well done. Loved this.

I really loved the human scope of the tale...great writing and character depiction...I would love to make a graphic novel out of it.

Check my blog for art samples if interested.

Cheers

Absolutely brilliant! I came across this as that "last window before bed" but could not bring myself to sleep until I'd finished it. Will share with all my friends :)

Powerful, terrific story.

Small detail: it should be "mad" not "made" in this phrase:

a whole world gone made with hysteria and grief

Thanks for pointing out that typo, Jennifer! Fixed now.

(And thanks, all of you, for the comments!)

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