By Daniel L. Link
I teased the window open a few millimeters, my eyes on the green LED indicator mounted on the sill. That's as far as I could get it open without the perimeter light switching to red. The breeze rushed through the tiny gap, making the lace curtain flutter, then billow, bringing with it the acrid odors of burned wood and plastic, and more. The fires had been out for hours, but the piles of ash and twisted metal still smoldered, still sent pillars of gray and black smoke into a leaden sky.
"It stinks, Mama." Rosalie's fingers tugged at my shirt, leaving two tiny dots of sweat on the fabric.
"I know, sweetie. Hang in there. It always gets better after a few days."
"I don't want to wait a few days. Make it stop now."
"You know I can't do that, honey."
It was five steps to the window. I crossed the distance, my legs growing heavier with each step. The breeze had gone, and the curtain hung slack, obscuring the scene beyond. Rosalie followed behind me, her own steps tentative.
"Just close the window."
"That wouldn't do any good. You know that."
As I reached for the curtain, Rosalie touched me, making me jump. Her eyes went from me to the window then back to me. I squatted down to her level.
"Are you sure you want to see?"
The struggle between her fear and curiosity played out across her face. She held her breath and her lips became a tight line. My daughter gave me a heartbreaking nod and I flushed with a mix of pride and terror that I wouldn't be able to protect her forever.
I pulled back the curtain, and together Rosalie and I looked out onto the street below, and the remains of the old three-story Colonial that had been the Ranberg house. The one next to it was gone, too, the Tuckers, but I couldn't see anything past that from the window.
"They were all in there?"
The hope in her eyes was a stab in my heart, an indictment on me as a mother.
"Of course, honey."
"Maybe Suzie got away."
She said it without conviction, the hope that she'd felt already gone. We stood there together, transfixed by the blackened ruin of our neighbor's home. The sodium-vapor streetlight didn't illuminate much, but I could make out the lump of metal that had once been the refrigerator, the skeleton of a bicycle, the burned-out husk of the car Nick had taken to work every day until the quarantine.
"What was that man saying?"
I had hoped she hadn't heard. She had been in bed when he came. Damn that big bell he clanged on.
"He was talking crazy."
"What did he say?"
"He said something that didn't make any sense." It's not real. None of it's real.
"But he was outside."
"Yes, he was."
"How did he get outside?"
"I don't know, baby."
When she tugged on my sleeve I took my eyes off the window. She looked up at me with a haunted expression no six-year-old should have.
"When can I go outside, Mama?"
"When this is all over."
"When's it going to be over?"
I didn't have an answer. Rosalie's brown eyes watched me as she waited, but then she took my hand and turned back to the window.
"It doesn't smell as bad here."
She was right. I closed my eyes and sniffed the night air, and I could almost believe it was only the smell of burning leaves. Standing there at the window, the cool air on my skin, my daughter's hand in mine, I wanted to keep my eyes shut forever and pretend.
"When are they going to come back?"
"Not for a while, I guess. They never come around again right away." That satisfied her. She dropped to her butt on the windowsill and let the air wash over her, and in that moment she looked older than her years. I sat on the floor beside her and she played with my hair. She'd twist a lock around a little finger, tight, trying to make it curl, always disappointed when she let it go and it hung limp again within seconds.
The fingers stopped and her breathing slowed. I scooped her up and carried her to bed. It wasn't her usual deep sleep. Her eyes fluttered open as I pulled the covers over her.
"Goodnight, baby." I kissed her brow.
Her eyes popped open and she squirmed into a sitting position. "When are they going to come after me?"
I lowered her back in the bed and stroked her cheek. "Hush now, girl. Don't talk like that. They're never going to come after you."
"Because you're not sick."
"Suzie wasn't sick."
"No, but her Daddy got sick." I smoothed her hair. "They had to take precautions."
"What if you get sick?"
"That's not going to happen." My hand went unconsciously to the insulin port in my stomach, an inch to the right of my bellybutton.
I lay beside Rosalie and hugged her to me, unable to get enough contact between us. She wriggled close and fell asleep in minutes. I'm not sure when sleep came, but I woke up exhausted, shaking in the aftermath of dreams I couldn't remember.
The smell had gotten worse overnight, and when I closed the window it didn't get any better. The faintest wisps of smoke were still rising from the ashes of the Ranberg place. I wanted to do something to take Rosalie's mind off the day before, but I couldn't focus long enough to think of anything. I decided to start with breakfast.
A quick check of the shelves and the fridge told me it was time to do some shopping. I punched the screen on my tablet and checked off the items I needed. When the order was finished, I grabbed my skillet and waffle iron and put on my apron.
The groceries would be a few minutes arriving, so I tuned in to the news. The screen came to life with the all-too-familiar scene that was playing out all over the world. The broadcast was from New York, and the men wore bright green suits instead of the yellow the men here wore, but the fires were the same, and the burning bodies. The ticker across the bottom of the screen gave tally of the statewide dead, listing them in alphabetical order. Virginia - 2186, West Virginia - 1889, Wisconsin - 1108, Wyoming - 245, Alabama, 1660, and on in a never-ending loop that climbed as steadily as the columns of smoke outside.
"Why are you watching that?"
I spun, surprised, feeling like I'd been caught at something. The screen took a second to shut off, only going dark when I slapped the remote against my hand to bring it back to life.
"Morning, baby." I smoothed my apron and forced a smile. "How did you sleep?"
"You said it’s only good for bringing you down."
"It is. It's just a bunch of bad news."
"Then why watch it?"
Rosalie was at that age when she had questions about everything. I knew that it meant she was intelligent, that she was trying to learn about the world around her. She was getting too good at asking the right questions, though, and I was running out of ways to avoid answering.
"I keep thinking one day they'll have some good news for us."
"Like a cure?"
The buzz of the bell snapped us both to attention.
"Groceries." A little laugh escaped me. "Somebody's making waffles."
She grinned and ran to the door.
The green light flashed once I punched in the code, the hiss of air filling the space as the steel door opened inward. I couldn't see any of the man's features through the mask. It wasn't the usual that covered only the mouth and nose, but a full-on breathing mask that started at his forehead and ended at his chin. He wore thick yellow gloves that looked comical, like the ones some people wore when washing their dishes.
He set two sealed sacks in the foyer, then a bucket with a blinking LED light on the lid. Last, he put the plastic cartridge that held my insulin. He gave a little wave that I thought was for me until I felt Rosalie by my side and saw her hand pressed against the Plexiglas divider. He closed the foyer door and was gone. The light on the divider turned red and the foyer filled with what looked like steam. It filled the eight-by-six vestibule until it was a pearlescent white and I couldn't see the groceries. The vents came on and in seconds the fog faded to a mist, then was gone. The light on the divider turned green and I pushed the button to raise it.
"Can I get it?"
"Of course, baby."
The trip from the door to the groceries was only a few steps, but it was as close to being outside as she'd come in years. It made me painfully aware of the life that she'd been robbed of, the normal childhood she'd never have. She bounded back in with one of the bags, leaving the other and the bucket for me.
"Who will I do my lessons with now that Suzie's dead?"
The question startled me, if not for the obvious sadness than for its bluntness, its lack of a euphemism. Only six years old, and dead was dead.
"We’ll check the registry. There are other kids to do your lessons with."
"But we won’t be neighbors."
"No, probably not."
“And I won’t be able to see her in the window.”
“Who will play with me if I’m the only little girl left?”
"Oh, sweetie." I dropped to a knee and hugged her tight to my chest.
"There's always going to be little girls in this world, and they all would love to play with you."
I thought of the news ticker, the numbers climbing every day, and wondered if I was lying.
We ate our waffles. I put a few blueberries on mine, but for Rosalie it was chocolate syrup and peanut butter. I made eggs and bacon and potatoes, and we ate until we couldn't anymore. It was two days' worth of my grocery allowance, but I couldn't help myself.
We listened to music while we cleaned up our dishes. An older song reminded me of a happier time and hit me with that bittersweet nostalgia that only music can. When we were finished I set Rosalie in the living room with a math and science lesson on her tablet. It was one of the individual lessons; I would wait a few days before trying to find her another study partner.
The food weighed heavy on my belly and I found myself in a malaise that wasn't altogether unpleasant. I was drifting off when I heard something and felt a vibration in my chest that started as a low rumble.
The place shook as the jets screamed past, the rumble becoming a pressure that made me feel like something was trying to tear its way out of me. The pressure released as the Doppler effect crested and the sound receded, and I shot to my feet and ran for the window. Rosalie was already there.
"Pick me up."
She was plenty big enough to do it herself, but I hoisted her onto the sill, holding tight to her shoulders even though the window was only open a crack. We tried to spot the jets, but the southern sky was empty, blue, and clear. I expected to see sets of contrails, evidence of their passing, but there was nothing.
Rosalie saw it first, stabbing a finger at a point so far away it was nothing but a black dot. I thought it would disappear, but it didn't. It grew larger, then split into two, then a third, and a fourth. They moved, silent and slow across the sky, their advance taking so long I wondered how they stayed aloft. When they got close, however, they seemed to pick up speed. One moment they were crawling along quiet as ghosts, the next that pressure started to build and they burned across the sky as hot and terrifying as last night's fires.
They flew over top of us and out of sight. We ran to the other side of the apartment and tried to spot them from the kitchen window, but the Smith place was in the way, and the sky over the empty lot where the Platt's had lived revealed nothing.
Rosalie's mouth opened wide enough for me to see the dark space where she'd lost her latest tooth. We stared at empty sky long after the thunder of their engines faded, waiting for them to come back. They didn't.
She turned from the window and made her way back to the kitchen, her steps slow and reluctant. "What were they doing here?"
"I don't know, baby."
I wondered for a moment if we were being invaded, but that didn't make sense. If we were attacked by another country, they'd surely start on the coasts, the big cities, and that would have made the news by now. The thought made me run to the television.
The top story was the only story, the same one that had been running for three years and had taken our personal freedoms one by one—our right to travel between countries, to have children, to marry. Then they took away the outside world. The ticker at the bottom showed the new numbers. California - 48,938, Colorado - 9,862, Connecticut - 4,005.
Two hours later the coverage changed, cameras focused not on a couple of burning houses but on an entire town, a country village built into the hillside that was an hour away when we were allowed to drive. It had all been flattened, every building a smoking ruin. The curve of the hill was familiar, but I wouldn't have recognized the blackened mass of bombed-out rubble if the caption under the feed wasn't there. 13,000 dead in Beldon. Contamination believed contained.
"They burned a whole town?" Rosalie was in the doorway, her tablet in hand. "That's a whole town?"
"We don't know all the details yet, sweetie."
She backed away from me, shaking her head. "They're going to kill us, too, aren't they?"
"No." I charged toward her, my voice low and cold. "That is never going to happen."
"You can't say that. You don't know."
"I do know, Rosie. I know that I'm never going to let anything happen to you."
"This happened because of that man, didn't it?"
I held her to me and rocked her and told her not to worry, but the image on the screen and the echo of the man's words made all my platitudes ring hollow. They're putting us in cages and deciding who lives or dies.
The voice on the TV went on to speculate how the destruction of the town was carried out. I turned it off, shivering. I didn't need to speculate. I'd seen those jets, and I imagined if I'd been looking close as they streaked by the second time, I would have noticed some missiles missing underneath those gray steel wings.
Rosalie wasn't her chatty self the rest of the day. The apartment felt too large without her voice and her laughter filling it up, hollow. I wanted her to talk, even if it meant more questions I couldn't answer.
The silence was instead broken by the sound of a bell. It rang once, then twice. By the third ring Rosalie and I were both at the window, looking down at the street below. We heard his shouts before we saw him.
"The government is lying to you."
The voice was closer than it had been last night. He couldn't be more than a block away.
"They're keeping you imprisoned until they've decided how many of us have to die."
We checked the dining room window, but he wasn't out there, and his voice was even further away.
"Don't just sit there like fools, waiting to die. Come with me. There are more of us every day."
A voice rang out above me. "You're the damn fool. You're going to get us all killed." I recognized Ada Webley, the old lady two floors up, the one who taught me the trick with the window. "Now get on out of here before I report you."
"Your threats can't hurt me, old woman. You report me, you know what will happen. Someone in Beldon reported me."
Ada's silence proved the emptiness of the threat. His answer was another clang on the bell.
"Come with me. Break out of those prisons."
Rosalie pointed as he came into view. "Down there."
He wore black and stuck to the shadows, but there was enough light from the streetlights to give him away. The bicycle he rode was silent, and he rode slow, his eyes darting from one lighted window to the next. When he came to ours, he stopped.
"You, ma'am. You have a child. Do you trust those charlatans with her life?"
Rosalie turned to me, his question mirrored on her face. I stepped back from the window.
"Hiding won't help you. It didn't help your neighbors."
I was shaking, so gripped with fear that I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering. "Go away."
He stepped closer, close enough to see his face in the light. He wore no mask, no gloves. Rosalie gasped. He was a plain man, but he was the first man she'd seen without a mask since the quarantine.
"I will go away, but I would prefer not go alone. They'll be back soon." He looked up at other windows, letting everyone get a good look. "They could be on their way now. I'll take you someplace safe, someplace they don't know about."
"There's nowhere they don't know about." I hadn't meant to speak, but the words poured out of me in a torrent of bitterness and frustration that I'd held back for too long. "I can't even leave without them knowing."
"You calm down now, dear." It was Ada again, her voice stern and full of warning. "You don't do anything that's going to get us all killed. All we have to do is stay inside and wait."
"Wait for what?" He turned in his seat. "What is it we're supposed to be waiting for?"
He laughed a mirthless laugh and rode a little further up the street, facing the next building. "Have you ever seen anyone get sick?"
"People are getting sick all the time." Ada sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "Look at the numbers on the news."
"But have you ever seen anyone who has it?"
Again, she had no answer. I thought of her upstairs, alone, at least seventy-five years old. What chance would she have if she ran away with this man? She had no choice but to wait, and to hope.
I stayed in the window, Rosalie squeezing my hand until our palms were thick with mingled sweat. He looked back at us once more before riding away.
"Think about it. I'll go to the end of the next block, then come back."
When he'd been gone a few minutes I pushed the window open a hair more. The green LED on the sill blinked a few times in warning, but it didn't turn red.
"Ada. Ada are you still there?"
"What do you want, child?"
"He's right. I have to think about my little girl."
No response came from above.
"I've never seen a sick person, not in real life. They don't even show them on the news anymore."
"What do you think? You think they just made all this up? For what?"
"They burned a whole town today, Ada."
She moaned, and the sound carried a lifetime's worth of remorse and fear.
"What would you do if you were me?"
I didn't expect her to answer, but to my surprise, she didn't hesitate.
"I'd run. I'd take my little girl and run."
It was what I wanted to do, but what would happen then? Could I doom a whole town to save myself and my daughter?
The man returned, and Rosalie let go of my hand and waved to him. He smiled a sad smile and waved back.
"Have you decided?"
“What about medicine?”
“I’ve told you, it’s all a lie.”
“No.” I fingered the port, the familiar two-inch reminder that my life was never entirely my own. “I take insulin. It comes with the shipments.”
“I can’t help you with that.” He spotted Rosalie and looked away. “I’m sorry.”
He waited while I packed bags. All the groceries, blankets and clothes I could stuff into three bags and a rolling suitcase. He assured me it would be enough. He stood in shadow on the street below while I talked Rosalie through it.
"You need to learn everything you can. Don't trust anyone. Be ready to run at the first sign of trouble."
"It's okay, Mama. Don't worry."
"There will be boys. Always watch out for boys. They can't be trusted."
Tears streamed down my face as I ripped the back off a picture frame, the collage of me and Rosalie. I stuffed them into a bag with her clothes and I worked my ring off my finger and dropped that in as well.
"Mama, why are you crying?"
"We don't have long, ma'am." The voice came through the window and broke the tension for a second.
The bags were too much for Rosalie to carry, so I put the backpack over her shoulders and dragged the rest to the foyer. She hunched under the weight, gripping my hand as I pressed the button that activated the vestibule door.
The light went red when we stepped in, but I didn't bother waiting for the decontaminating mist. We pushed through the door to the stairwell and a klaxon sounded, deafening in the small space. The door slammed shut behind us.
We ran down the steps and out the front door, the building's lights and siren sounding our escape for the entire town. All the faces that had been too afraid to appear in their windows were there now, staring down at me. The Smith kids, old Mr. Ledbetter, Dr. McCauley, my dentist. They had known me for years, had watched Rosalie grow, yet their eyes still burned with fury. They didn't scream or pound on the glass, but their silent accusation was somehow more damning. Ignoring them, I shoved Rosalie in the man's arms.
"They'll be here soon. Go!"
He wrapped his arms around Rosalie and I dangled one of the bags off the handlebar of his bike. The other was too big.
"Leave it. We'll have everything she needs."
I knelt and withdrew the photographs and the ring and shoved them at the man. "Make sure she gets these when she's old enough. Promise me."
There was a change in Rosalie's eyes when she understood. One moment she was limp in his arms, the next she was kicking and screaming along with the cries from the people above, her "Mama, no," mingling with their accusations.
"Go with him, baby." I kissed her as she flailed, my hand on her cheek, my thumb rubbing her tears away for the last time. "Mommy loves you."
Her screams faded as the man ran with her and the bag down the road, abandoning the bike. When I couldn't hear her anymore, I slumped against the wall, my legs failing to support me. When I got to my feet, I could feel the watching eyes on me as I picked up the bike and walked it back to the apartment building. The siren had stopped, but the lights still flashed out their signal.
I climbed the steps, past my apartment to the buzzer for the fourth floor. Across the plexiglas walled foyer, Ada opened her door and buzzed me in. I waited while the fog filled the chamber, trying to hold my breath. When it cleared, she opened her door and took me into her arms.
We sat in her living room, holding hands while I cried over my daughter, and she cried over whatever she was most afraid of losing, or had already lost.
"It's okay, child."
She kissed my brow and rocked me and we waited there together, listening for the sound of approaching jets.