The streets of Old Fourth Ward were eerily quiet. On any other day the voices of children would be heard playing in the streets. Music would drift out open apartment windows, and old women would talk to each other in loud voices from their porches. It was a colorful neighborhood. The kind of place which felt lived in. But that was before.
Now those streets with their technicolor graffiti were tinted white and black and red. The posters plastered to the brick walls screamed out to be noticed. Ella Grant pretended she had blinders on, like those old carriage horses further downtown. If she didn't look, they weren't there.
The sun was rising over the Atlanta skyline as Ella made her way down the street, her daughter's hand clutched in her own. As they neared the intersection, the older woman swept the block with her eyes. There were more posters here, these covered in paint. Fresh, from the looks of it. The mural's large black eyes stared back at her, with drops of blood-red dripping from the corners.
Ella shuddered as Mia tugged on her hand insistently. The girl at her side wore a clownfish onesie. It had been a present from her father, and Mia hardly took it off. By now it was worn and dirty, not that Mia cared.
"Mommy, are we gonna see the fishies?" Mia asked, tugging Ella's hand again. "You promised."
As she spoke the ill-fitting surgical mask slipped from her face. Ella dropped to her knees beside her daughter to retie the strings. "Yes, baby. Tonight. But we have to take the long way."
Mia pouted as her mask was tightened on her face. "Can daddy come get us?" Mia asked the same question every day. Ella wished she could answer yes, that Rob would be there soon. But she couldn't lie anymore.
"No, honey. He can't get to us. He was in Marietta when…" She trailed off. Her eyes finally landed on the posters, if only to avoid looking at her daughter. The white posters were all the same. Black and red text, bold and attention grabbing. KNOW THE SYMPTOMS OF PHOBOS.
The following posters spelled out the warning signs, complete with informative graphics. PARANOIA. AGRESSION. HALLUCINATIONS. Each poster was stamped with a familiar logo in the corner, it was the same logo embroidered on Ella's jacket: CDC. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she'd been the one in the lab, instead of the lab rat.
"Where's the cars?" Mia asked as they began walking again. There was no reason to take the sidewalk now. The lack of cars on the roads was almost more ominous than the silence. When had Atlanta traffic ever ceased to be?
Ella tried to smile down at her daughter, despite the sick feeling that sat in the bottom of her stomach. "Everyone's at home, Mia."
"I wanna go home," the girl muttered.
"We all do," Ella snapped. The words came out harsher than intended, and Mia went silent. Ella knew if the mask hadn't obscured her face, she would see Mia's bottom lip begin to quiver. "Sorry, angel," Ella whispered. She ruffled Mia's hair with one hand. "I know you do. We'll be home soon, I promise."
They neared a familiar row of duplexes. They were the old kind with wood siding and carved wooden columns on the porch. Ella had always liked them, they felt as if they were out of another era. But they'd fallen into disrepair, the blue and red paint had begun to chip, and several of the windows had been broken in. The first week after the lockdown had been bad. Looters broke into shops first but when the shelves were cleaned out, they turned to homes.
But it wasn't just broken glass and peeling paint on the porches today. "It's too hot to sleep outside," Mia murmured. Ella followed the girl's eyes to the porch two houses down. An elderly woman sat in a rocking chair. She was wearing a floral dress, the kind Ella's auntie used to wear. It took a moment amongst the pattern for Ella to see the blood. She followed the trail up to the woman's eyes. Just like the mural.
Ella pulled Mia across the street. "Come on, honey. Let her sleep." She didn't stop walking until they'd turned the corner. This street wasn't much better. The speakers at the King Center had never been turned off, they cranked out old gospel music that was supposed to put you at ease as you walked in the museum's garden. But something was off, and the music sounded wrong, like it was playing in a funhouse.
Mia didn't seem to notice anything was amiss, but Ella spoke to distract her anyway. "Aren't you excited to go to the aquarium?" Mia nodded with an enthusiasm that shook her whole body. With her free hand, Mia tugged the hood of her onesie over her head to complete her clownfish look. Ella attempted a smile but was glad the mask over her face concealed the grimace.
"When I'm grow up, I'm gonna be a mermaid," Mia told her mother. "Do you think the fishies will let me swim with them then?"
"I'm sure they will, honey."
As the pair made their way down the street, the music faded into speech. The Reverend's all too familiar words distorted by broken speakers and the echo of empty streets. Ella grasped her daughter's hand tighter and continued on toward the city.
Compared to the rest of the city, the veterinary clinic looked frozen in time. When the world ended, people didn't usually think about the things one could find at the vet. But if you knew what you were looking for, it was infinitely safer than trying to get yourself into a hospital or even your GP.
The small lobby was pristine. The walls were covered with animal posters baring cheesy puns. Even the end tables still held magazines which had been out of date even before the barricades went up. The only thing out of place was the man lying on the floor. He appeared to be asleep, but Ella couldn't be sure without kicking him, and she didn't want to risk it.
Ella waited a few moments to see if he would wake up. He did not. Finally, she decided it was safe to move around. She headed for the door to the back and tried the handle. Locked. Ella sighed and turned toward the counter. She could just make out a row of animal crates, most were open, but a few were still locked. She tried not to look too closely.
"Wait here, Mia," Ella said, lowering her voice to a whisper so as not to disturb the man. "I'll be right back."
"Mommy!" Mia whined. "You said we were gonna see the fishies!"
Ella glanced over Mia's shoulder. If the man was only asleep, Mia's voice had failed to wake him up. "We will, soon. I promise." She glanced back toward the counter. "But I need to get some…medicine."
Mia giggled. "This isn't the people doctor, silly."
"Just wait here!" Ella snapped. Mia took a step back, her smile wiped away. Ella rubbed a hand across her forehead and sighed. "Sorry, baby."
Ella headed toward the counter, pushed herself up onto it, and swung her legs over. She weaved through the rooms, eyes scanning cabinets as she moved. In the back, she finally found the large case of medicine. Not a bottle was out of place.
She began checking labels antibiotics, heartworms, thyro-tabs. Finally, Ella found the one she was looking for. As she drew out the bottle of acepromazine, she saw the bold label on the back: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.
"Mommy?" Mia called from the front room.
Ella stuffed the bottle in her pocket. "On my way!" She jogged through the clinic and back to the lobby, choosing to unlock the door instead of vaulting over the desk again. "Alright, baby, let's go!"
But when stepped through the door, it wasn't Mia waiting for her on the other side. If Ella had not seen the man asleep on the floor, she would have assumed he'd been awake for days. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his skin had a dull look.
His eyes flicked down toward the logo on Ella's jacket. Before Ella could speak, the man pulled off his mask. Ella flinched back, but there was nowhere to go with the door closed behind her.
"You're one of them," he said. The man's voice sounded hollow and far away. "They sent you to save us."
"No, they left me here to die," Ella snapped. "Same as you."
The man took another step forward. Ella tried to find the door handle with one hand. "They're coming back for us. They promised," he reminded her. "You'll see, you'll see."
Ella couldn't help but scoff at his naivete. "We're a threat to the entire East Coast. They shut off the power, the water, everything. They want us to die."
"You're wrong. They wouldn't just abandon us!"
Ella's hand found the doorknob, but it didn't budge. Must have locked behind her. "It'll be thirty days tomorrow," she reminded him, in an attempt to buy herself time. She slipped her hand into her pocket. "The longer we live, the more dangerous we are. And dead bodies don't carry Phobos." The man was watching her, but he didn't get any closer. "My bet's on gas. But bombing the whole city to hell would work too."
"Mommy, I wanna go," Mia said quietly.
The man didn't turn, but Ella hardly gave him a chance to. She drew her pocketknife and screamed, the man lunged toward her, and Ella slammed the knife into his neck. The man took a step back and put his hand over the wound. Blood pooled between his fingers.
He looked at her with a funny expression on his face, almost a smile. "You'll see."
Ella kicked the man's legs out from under him, and he crashed to the ground. She kicked him, once, twice. "Stay away from us." There was no answer. Ella stared down at the body and took a small step backwards.
Mia grabbed her mother's hand, pulling Ella back to the present. "Let's go, mommy." Ella touched the pill bottle in her pocket and nodded.
Centennial Park was dead silent. Ella couldn't remember a day when the expanse between where Luckie Street ended and picked up again wasn't bustling. It was the heart of downtown. There was the wheel that no one had really asked for, and the Tabernacle that had a queue of concert goers around the street once a week. All the best museums lined the green space in the center, and the stadium was only a few blocks away.
But today there were no children playing in the ring-shaped fountains, nor guys hawking water bottles and Kool-Aid pickles to their parents. The grass was starting to get unruly, and in some places was growing up through the bricks. But other than the eeriness of the quiet, there weren't many signs of Phobos here.
The hotels had cleared out quick, no tourist wanted to be around when the first cases hit. And if you could afford to live in one of the skyscrapers, surely you could afford to head out of state at the drop of a hat.
Ella swallowed her bitterness and started off across the lawn. The aquarium was in sight, and Mia was getting restless. Ella stuffed her hand in her pocket to make sure the pills were still there. The bottle had not moved since the last time she checked three blocks back.
As they neared the middle of the park, the snack stand came into view. "Hey, you want a Coke?" She asked Mia. The girl raised an eyebrow, as if waiting to call her mother's bluff. "It's a special day, I'll let you have as much soda as you want."
Ella didn't wait for Mia's response, just headed toward the door. It had been broken in by somebody else, so she slipped easily inside. Most shelves had been cleaned out, but there were still a couple bottles of soda at the bottom of the cooler. She grabbed a Coke. It was as warm as the pavement under the Atlanta sun, but it was better than nothing.
Outside, Mia had climbed on top of a picnic table. "Be careful, Mia!" Ella called. The girl looked over and waved before leaping down from one table and climbing onto another. Ella turned back to the counter and pulled the pill bottle from her pocket.
She unscrewed the lid of the soda, then separated the capsules and poured their contents into the bottle one at a time. Ella looked at the Coke for a moment before capping it and heading for the door. "Okay, baby, let's go see the fishes!"
Mia leapt down from the table and ran to join her mother. "This is the best day ever," she said, taking Ella's hand.
In Ella's right hand, she let the bottle swing back and forth. With her left, she squeezed Mia's hand.
The aquarium's line of double doors came into view, and Mia sprinted toward them. She disappeared inside before Ella could call out for her to wait. Her eyes flicked up to the sign and she squeezed the bottle hard enough that her knuckles turned white. "This is my fault."
Ella made her way toward the door, stepping over a pile of blankets that looked suspiciously like a person. She tried not look to closely. "This is all my fault." She reached out for the door and stepped inside.
Two Months Ago
Ella stepped into the crowded aquarium, searching the room for familiar faces. Visitors had gathered near the largest tank, oohing and aahing over the sea creatures that swam by. "Mommy, you're here!" Ella's head snapped toward the familiar voice, and a moment later a girl in a clownfish onesie was jumping into her arms.
Ella laughed quietly as she hugged Mia. She hadn't realized how much she needed this break. It had been a long day in a long week, and things weren't looking up. "Come on, daddy's saving our spot," Mia urged. Ella shook her head but carried the girl toward the tank where Robert was waiting.
As soon as Ella put Mia back on the ground, Mia was pushing her way through the crowd. Robert slung an arm around his wife's shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. Ella leaned her head on his shoulder with a sigh.
"You missed the meeting this morning," he pointed out. "That's not like you, El."
"I was too caught up in the lab. We're so close," she groaned. "This strain is unlike anything I've ever seen." If she weren't so tired, she might have sounded more excited. She'd never been this invested in a project, but it was also kicking her ass.
"They want it by next week."
Ella looked toward him with wide eyes. "Absolutely not. It isn't ready. We have to run more tests, a lot more tests. I need a month, maybe more. If something were to go wrong…" It would be catastrophic, she finished the thought silently. She didn't need to say it out loud, Robert knew the consequences.
"It's the Department of Defense, El." He let out a deep sigh. "You can't argue with those people."
"Just try, alright?" She insisted. After a moment, Robert nodded. At the tank, Mia had her face pressed against the glass. The girl giggled as a stingray swam by. "I'm calling it Phobos," Ella said.
Robert laughed softly. "Why? Because it gives the rats night terrors?"
Mia stood on her tiptoes and waved at her parents. Ella sighed. "Something like that."
From the looks of it, squatters had been living in the aquarium's atrium. The floor was littered with trash, overturned tables, and a couple of blankets. But thankfully no one was inside, save for Mia. The girl was standing in front of the large tank, staring up at it. The water seemed a little off, and no fish swam by as Ella approached. The only thing she saw in the glass was her own reflection.
Ella's jacket was stained with blood, her hair was frizzy and unkempt, and her eyes looked red and irritated. Ella tugged her mask down around her neck. With one hand she tried to rub dirt off her cheeks.
Tears welled up in her eyes and she wiped them away. Her fingers came away red. In the reflection she could see the bloody droplets streaking their way across her face. She watched them fall for a moment before glancing toward the Coke bottle in her hand.
She startled at the sight. It was there, in her hand and in the reflection. But in the glass, she was alone. Ella searched the room, looking for Mia. Maybe she'd gone to check another tank.
"What's wrong, mommy?" Mia said quietly. Ella turned toward the voice and found Mia at her side again. She turned back to her reflection, slowly. Her mirror image stood alone with bloody tears making tracks down her cheeks. The Coke bottle slipped from Ella's hands and hit the floor with a thump.
Ella turned back toward Mia, but she was gone. She had never been there at all.