Short Story of the Day
First came the virus. It wiped out most of the world. Hospitals were overcrowded and medical personnel were overwhelmed and overworked. The Red Plague became the new Black Plague, but instead of rats and fleas, it was started by bats. People were coughing, experiencing fever and chills, and dying at an alarming rate. In Wuhan, where the virus started, people were dropping dead like flies on the street as they walked. Lockdowns and curfews were enforced. We were all quarantined, working from our homes. Students were taught online. Establishments were shut down. In public, we wore masks to protect ourselves and others around us. We washed our hands very often and wiped down every item we bought from the store. Toilet paper, hand sanitizers, alcohol, and soap quickly vanished from shelves. People fought over them. Gatherings were limited to ten people, and then six. We stood six feet apart. It was a lonely apocalyptic nightmare. And then came the cure. A glimmer of hope showed itself. Everyone saw the silver lining through the black clouds of death and despair. The first few batches of the vaccine were rolled out and everyone who received them were healed. They were pulled back from the brink of death and their health improved. But then something very wrong happened along the way. That's when the second outbreak started. There were boxes of tainted vaccines that produced horrible side effects. People died at a much faster rate than when they contracted the Red Plague. They got sick within hours of the injection, died, and decayed fast, all within three days. On the fourth day, they would rise from the dead and emerge as mindless flesh-eating zombies. Their flesh were rotten, showing their bones underneath and their skins slowly melted, making it look like they had rags draped over their bodies. It was a terrifying sight. But more terrifying to me was the thought that I may have to survive alone. People were still isolated from each other because of fear.
I'd been on my own since the Second Outbreak, traveling from my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska over snow and ice—walking, skiing, skating—and I have found no survivors yet so far. All I've seen were Rotters. I pitched my tent for the night, put out the fire that I'd made, and quickly went inside, zipping the door shut. Before I went in, I caught a glimpse of the aurora borealis above, casting its green, yellow, pink, and purple lights down on my lonely campsite. I raised my fists to heaven and cursed whatever god let this happen to an otherwise beautiful world and its people. Granted, we weren't perfect, but people were still people and none of us deserved this fate—not even my worst enemies. I slept fitfully that night, waking every other hour and keeping my ears open for any Rotters close by. I held my rifle in my arms tightly against my chest like a protective lover. I wasn't taking any chances.
In the morning, I ate a quick breakfast—some tasteless, cardboard-like granola bar. It was bland but it gave me the energy I needed for the remainder of my journey. I had yet to reach the nearest town and I had to find one fast. Tents were good for shelter but they were still dangerous. A Rotter could easily rip through the fabric and get to you. At least inside a building, you could board up the doors and windows. So I had to move fast if I wanted to survive. I put on my skis and glided down the snowy slopes as fast as I could. In my haste, I failed to check the straps on my skis and they snapped, sending me flying and hurtling down the hill. That was not good. Not good at all. I checked myself for any broken bones. None. Relieved, I checked my straps next. They most likely snapped from the cold. I quickly replaced them and resumed my journey. My goal was to find a town before nightfall and this little accident may have set me back a few hours. I silently let out a string of curses in my head and then said a quick prayer that somehow my new straps wouldn't fail me. I finally reached the nearest town before nightfall. The signs were written in Swedish. I have reached Sweden then, I thought. It was so far away from my native Alaska. How I managed to travel that far and fight off the occasional hordes of Rotters, I wasn't sure. All I cared about in the moment was that I was alive. I was a survivor. The town was abandoned, its residents either all dead and turned into Rotters by now or dead from suicide. Or they all could have fled to safety. I was hoping on the latter. As I walked into the town, I heard a rasping sound. Like someone who was dehydrated. Or worse, dying. I looked down to see a man half buried in the snow, in the throes of his painful transformation. He was in the last stages of decay. Soon, he would emerge as a Rotter.
"Help…me…" he croaked pitifully. "Hhhhhh—"
I had to put him out of his misery. I didn't think twice and raised my rifle, cocked it, then I pointed it down at him. I aimed for his head and fired. BLAM! His head exploded, painting the white snow beneath him red with his blood and brain matter. And then I did the unthinkable. I rifled through his clothes for anything of value. Before the Second Outbreak, I would have objected to such action. My conscience wouldn't have let me do that. Death and the dead were sacred. You do not desecrate a dead body. But these are desperate times, and as the cliché goes, it calls for desperate measures. I found a box of matches in his jacket pocket. Those would come in handy in building a fire. I wouldn't have to rub sticks or rocks to do it anymore. I was thankful. As I continued my exploration of the town, I noticed that some doors were painted with big red X's. Possibly a way to mark the houses of residents who were infected by the Cure. Cautiously, I went inside to inspect it, checking for survivors. Inside, I saw a woman and her two children—a son and a daughter—lying in bed, deathly still. They had bite marks on them but they didn't look like Rotters. They look like ordinary dead people. I inspected the nightstand and found three bottles of sleeping pills and three glasses. They were all empty. The woman must have given her children the sleeping pills first, tucked them in one last time and watched them fall asleep and die, then emptied the last bottle of sleeping pills herself and lay down beside them in an eternal embrace. In the next house that I explored, I found a man in his shed in the backyard. He was slumped over his worktable, facedown. Fresh blood soaked the wood. His gun had clattered to the cold dirt floor. I looked on in pity, closed the door, and decided enough was enough. I needed to find shelter.
I trudged through the snowy streets until I reached the townhall in the middle of the town. I barred the door behind me with the help of some wooden planks, nails, and a hammer that I'd found. I was safe for the night. Safe from the elements and from Rotters. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the cold hard floor and tried to sleep. I wasn't complaining though. I was safe and this was a quite a welcome change from sleeping in a tent. Still, I slept with as much vigilance as I did when I was on the road. Once or twice during the night, I thought I heard the distinct groaning sounds of Rotters through the howling arctic winds.
At first light, I explored the townhall, hoping to find anything useful. I went from room to room, office to office, until I found it. There in a radio room in the building was a radio, a pen, and a pad of paper. My Swedish was poor, but I could make out some of the words written on the torn page. Överlevande. Survivors. Hundbjörn Katedral. Hundbjörn Cathedral. Cigaretter. Cigarettes. Perhaps someone was asking the radio operator to bring some cigarettes along with the supplies? The coordinates were also written down. It was a town twenty miles away called Hundbjörn. I was saved. There were other survivors like me. I finally had solid hope, not a false one. I folded up the piece of paper and tucked it into my shirt pocket. Next, I rolled up my sleeping bag and prepared my things. First, I was going to loot the empty stores for food and water, and then I would be on my way. I had a long day ahead of me. As I trudged through the thick white blanket, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. I heard a familiar sound. It didn't sound like a Rotter. At least I didn't think so at first. It sounded more natural. It sounded like a bear. A gigantic angry polar bear. It's skin and flesh were rotting, though, and its dirty white fur was matted with blood. So now the Cure affected animals too? Just great. Exactly what I needed. Fear and terror gripped my heart and my hands shook so bad that I missed every shot I was trying to make. Just then, I heard another sound. A growl and a series of barks. A husky came barreling out of someone's backyard, fangs bared, spittle flying in the rushing wind. It growled, howled, and barked at the bear, preventing it from advancing any further and essentially protecting me from the rotting beast. I was grateful for my new companion at my side. With renewed courage and strength, I grabbed my sidearm and shot the bear straight through its forehead. It fell with a great crash, shaking the icy ground. Having survived my recent ordeal, I called the dog to me.
"Here! Here, girl," I said, whistling. "I won't hurt you."
Tentatively, the dog made its way to me, sniffing my hand warily, then backing up ever so slightly. I repeated my promise that I wouldn't hurt her. Upon closer inspection, however, I found I had been mistaken.
"Oh, you're a boy," I said as realization dawned on me. "Do you have a name?"
Of course, he has a name, you idiot, I said to myself. He was once someone's dog.
"How about I give you a name?" I asked the dog. "Hmm… What about Nanook? Do you like the name Nanook?"
He barked excitedly. Nanook it is! In Inuit mythology, Nanook was the master of bears. He decided whether or not a hunter would be successful in killing a bear. So I named my new dog Nanook.
I prepared for our journey for the rest of the day, stockpiling on preservers, canned fruits, sardines, coffee, chocolates, jerky, bacon, a couple of first aid kits, bullets, water, and some dog food and treats for Nanook. Then I snatched a Swedish phrasebook to help me communicate with my dog. Lastly, I swiped a couple of boxes of cigarettes just in case I met the man who was asking the operator for his sticks. And then we were all set.
As Nanook and I traveled, we encountered hordes of Rotters. If they were few, we dared to take them on. If they were too many for us, we would hide. It wasn't wise to fight off or kill Rotters every time you encountered them. You could run out of bullets. You had to pick your battles. There's a fine line between bravery and stupidity and I wasn't about to cross that.
As we neared Hundbjörn, Nanook and I met our final obstacle on the bridge leading to town. At first it was just some stragglers. One or two slow walking Rotters here and there. We took them out easily. But then they started multiplying like metastasized cancer cells, seemingly coming out of nowhere. We were done for, for sure, I thought. I was glad I was wrong. At the last moment, I heard gunshots and saw blood, skull fragments, and brains exploding in the air around me as the Rotters were struck with bullets from behind. My saviors—a man and a woman—must have been sharp shooters. They never missed their mark. I tried to help them but I had run out of bullets and there was no time for me to reload. Instead, I smashed the Rotters' skulls with the butt end of my rifle. It had the same desired effect—the death of the Rotters. The others I slashed with my bowie knife, aiming for their necks, severing their heads. As I did so, blood sprayed over me. It was a good thing I was intact and had no wounds. Blood to blood contact was one of the ways you could be Turned into a Rotter. Later, three more men came rushing to our aid. Together, we made quick work of the Rotter horde that would have otherwise Turned Nanook and I. When it was all finally over, I introduced myself.
"I'm Tom," I said, extending my hand for a shake. "Tom Trueheart. This is my dog, Nanook."
"I am Grisha Fyodorov," the tall Russian man said, shaking my hand firmly. "This is my wife, Anna."
"A pleasure to meet you," Anna said as we shook hands.
"What are you doing here?" one of the men said in an Israeli accent, his hand immediately flying to the pistol at his hip. "Where do you come from? Explain yourself."
"Pardon my friend's brusqueness," the man next to him said. He was African, from Kenya, if I had to guess. "This is Benyamin. He is just wary of strangers, that's all. You'll see. He will warm up to you eventually as he did with us. I am Jonathan Mwangi."
The last member of the rescue team just nodded.
"He's name is Sven," Jonathan explained. "He doesn't speak English."
Suddenly, Sven let out an excited cry, pointing to my jacket. Suddenly, I remembered. There was a pack of cigarettes in my pocket. He must've been the one who requested them along with the supplies.
"Oh, this," I said, taking the pack out of my jacket pocket. "Here you go."
Sven smiled and nodded.
"Come," Anna said. "We shall introduce you to the others,"
"The others?" I asked, confused.
"We found each other and formed a small community of survivors," Jonathan answered.
"But don't try anything funny," Benyamin warned.
"What is your deal?" I asked testily. Nanook growled and I tugged on his leash to prevent him from attacking one of our new companions.
"Gentlemen, please," Jonathan said, coming between us. "There is no need for this."
As we entered the warmth of the cathedral, my knees buckled from exhaustion and I sank to the floor, unconscious. The last thing I remember was being surrounded by friends and Nanook licking my face, trying to wake me. I had been all alone since the beginning of the Red Plague and then through most of the Second Outbreak. Now, for the first time in months, years even, I was among friends.