“Just the flu,” Maggie murmured, stirring a large pot of homemade chicken soup. “That’s all it is.”
Nothing to worry about, Dr. Albert had explained. Unless you’re very young or very old.
He called it Walker’s Flu, said that like any virus, it exploited weaknesses in the immune system. But Josh and their son Jason were perfectly healthy—they could fight off anything Mother Nature threw their way. Just in case, though, the doctor had given them both the usual anti-virals. He’d also insisted that she have a shot, although considering how much vomit and Kleenex she’d waded through in the last few days, it was pretty much a case of shutting the barn door after the horse was long gone.
Everything will be fine, she told herself silently.
Not that you could tell from the way Josh was acting. This was the first serious illness her husband had experienced since he’d contracted the mumps as a child. It was all she could do not to laugh when her usually stoic spouse reverted to a childish whiner in his sick bed. Though Jason was only seven, he was soldiering though it better than his father.
Still, her hands were full nursing them and she was exhausted.
Their fevers had to break soon. They’d both had brief periods of relief where their temperatures had dropped and their appetites had returned, but the respite had been short-lived—an hour or so at most.
Maggie didn’t like the way the whites of their eyes had gone yellow, either—a sickly color shot through with red lines. She worried that it was a sign of jaundice. Didn’t that mean the liver was infected?
No, if they weren’t on the mend by the morning, she’d have to load them into the car and make the long, winding drive down the mountain into Redwood Grove for another visit with the doctor. In the meantime she’d continue to bring them chicken soup, saltines, and ginger ale, even if the food just sat on the nightstand, untouched.
If only they would eat.
“Mom?” Jason’s voice, a thin echo of its usual healthy tone, came through the baby monitor she’d placed next to his bed. “Mom, my throat hurts. I’m so thirsty.”
Maggie hit the speaker button.
“Be right there, baby,” she said. “I’ll bring you some water.”
Jason coughed in reply, issuing a wet, phlegmy sound that would have alarmed her if she hadn’t heard it so many times the last few days. Still, it seemed as if he was coughing up a lung.
Stirring the soup a few more times, Maggie turned down the burner under the pot, tightened her robe, grabbed a glass, and filled it with tap water. Then she headed up the stairs in what must have been her fiftieth trip of the day.
Who needs the gym?
Walking down the hallway to Jason’s room, she sniffed and wrinkled her nose. The smell of stale, sweat-soaked linens hung in the air, tinged with urine. Hopefully she’d be able to wash the sheets in the next day or two.
Pushing Jason’s door open with her free hand, Maggie stepped into her seven-year-old son’s room... and stopped dead in her tracks.
Jason lay in his bed in his Spider-Man pajamas, eyes wide open, unnaturally dark blood trickling out from his tear ducts, nostrils, ears, and mouth. His skin was cyanotic blue and the corneas of his eyes were fish-belly white.
The glass slipped from Maggie’s hand, shattering on the hardwood floor, sending water and shards flying everywhere. She didn’t notice, her attention entirely on her son.
“J...Jason?” She took another step into the room, glass crunching beneath her shoes. “Baby?”
No response. Her little boy lay there unmoving, the blood seeping out onto the pillow, creating a dark halo around his corn-silk blond hair.
A deep primal wail stuck in Maggie’s throat, a hair’s breadth from emerging and shattering the silence with its pain. Part of her refused to accept the evidence of her eyes, and she shoved the cry back, somehow knowing that voicing her loss would make it real.
Josh, she thought instinctively. I have to get Josh. He’ll know what to do.
She backed out of Jason’s room and spun, sprinting to the master bedroom where Josh had spent the last four days lying in misery. The door was ajar, and she stumbled past it.
“Josh,” she choked. “It’s Jason, I think he’s... he’s not breathing, and—” The words caught in her throat.
Josh lay on his back, his head turned toward the sound of Maggie’s voice, but there was nothing but pain in his gaze. He coughed, and blood sprayed out of his mouth. More dribbled from his nostrils, ears, and eyes. It was as if his insides were dissolving.
Before Maggie could do more than gasp in horror, her husband’s jaw fell open and a rattling noise emerged—a wheezing, liquid vibration coming from deep in his throat.
He’s choking, she realized. Suffocating on his own blood. She flew across the room, grabbing him by the shoulders and lifting him in an attempt to raise his head and clear out his esophagus. She could feel the fever radiating from his body like heat rising from asphalt on a summer day.
“C’mon honey, breathe!” she said, shifting into emergency mode. “Breathe, god dammit!” But Josh’s head just lolled to one side, his eyes quickly glazing over with the same milky film as Jason’s.
Maggie’s head shook back and forth in denial even as she lowered Josh back onto the bed and reached for the phone on the bedside table. This isn’t happening, she told herself as her fingers stabbed out 9-1-1. Dr. Albert said it was just the flu. Where’s all the blood coming from? There had to be an answer, a cure, something that would bring back her husband and son.
She listened to the ringing on the other end of the line, waiting for a calm, soothing voice to pick up and tell her what to do.
“Hurryhurryhurry,” she chanted, averting her eyes from Josh’s body. Five, six, seven times, and no one answered. She raised her arm, ready to hurl the phone across the room, when a thumping noise in the doorway stopped her short.
Her little boy, her Jason, lurched into the room, one hand slamming unheedingly against the doorframe.
Maggie gave a choked sob of joy. She dropped the phone and reached for his small form as he staggered toward her. His arms stretched out pleadingly, his mouth agape.
Maggie’s eyes widened as she saw her son with sudden clarity. The still-bluish tint of his skin... his milky eyes, like those of a blind man. Her skin crawled, and instinctively she started to draw back.
No! He needs me.
She reached for him again with the age-old reflexes of a mother.
By the time her heart caught up with her brain and Jason had sunk his teeth into her arm, it was too late.
Because Josh was awake now, too. And so was his appetite.
I slapped the head of my giant panda alarm clock, sending a metal spike into its adorable panda skull. Normally I’d feel guilty about assaulting an endangered species, but anything to stop the hideous ringing.
I hate getting up.
I mean, really hate it. I’d sleep until noon if I had my way, but someone thought it was a good idea to start the day in the morning.
I’m too old for this, I thought through the cobwebs. Try as I might to schedule my first class at a reasonable hour, there was an asshole out there who’d decided that “Pandemics in History” were best studied at 8am.
Sadist. Like I really needed to read about the Black Death, or debate love during the time of cholera, with just a single cappuccino under my belt.
One... two... three!
I threw off the down comforter and rolled out of bed, taking my time standing up. I’m never particularly perky before 10am. In fact, I’m the anti-perk. But I was especially slow to start these days.
Bad enough that I was at least ten years older than anyone else in the class. Who would have thought a decade could make such a difference? On top of that, I’d already missed the first week of my sophomore year thanks to a case of genuine, bona fide Walker’s flu; named, by the way, after the first guy to catch the disease. I could think of better ways to be immortalized. Damn, it had kicked my butt. It left me weak and cranky. Really cranky.
I hardly ever get sick, but it’d slipped in right after a nasty case of food poisoning. Dr. Albert—our family GP since I was in diapers—said I probably caught it because of my weakened immune system.
That didn’t make me feel any better about it. Weirdly enough, the doc had seemed almost cheerful at the thought, until I’d refused a shot of flu vaccine.
Dr. Albert was a big believer in flu shots. Kind of like an evangelistic drug pusher... except legit. I’d missed the free flu vaccine clinic while I’d been puking up my guts due to some bad sushi—I should have known eating at a fast food place called Sushirama was a bad idea.
So he’d tried to shoot me up when I crawled into his office, but I’d said no way. I mean, I was already sick, so putting more nasties into my system seemed like a bad idea.
Now, as I stood up on unsteady legs, I wondered if maybe I should have listened to him.
My roommate Zara was already gone for the day, leaving the bathroom free and clear, thank goodness. I mean, I liked her, but honestly, the girl took an hour to put on make-up, and that was after all the scrubbing, exfoliating, creaming, and toning. And the vegetable and fruit drawers in our little fridge were stuffed full of leaking jars of face goo. Our apples and carrots may have smelled funny, but they had the best skin in town.
I stared at my face in the bathroom mirror.
At least I wouldn’t get carded if I wanted to buy booze. I looked old enough to be my mother. My skin had this kind of pale olivey-cast, the same color as those scary babies in Italian Renaissance paintings. And my eyes looked dull—more gray than green, like brackish swamp water.
Okay, maybe not that bad, but points for using “brackish” in a sentence before my first cup of coffee.
Glancing guiltily at Zara’s magic potions, I pried one open and used it to try and hide the dark circles under my eyes. Applied something called “Sun-Kissed Beige Glow” to try to change the sickly tone of my skin to an artificially natural tint. The result surprised me.
A little mascara and some lip-gloss brightened my face enough to pass inspection. That left the thick, tawny mess I call hair. I pulled it back and used an industrial strength metal clip made in the shape of a butterfly. The violet and red crystals set in the wings caught the sunlight shining through the bathroom window. At least part of me sparkled. Although not in a Twilight way. Personally I thought Edward was kinda... well... gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I prefered my vamps like Christopher Lee or the cute Billy Idol clone in Buffy. Not bothering with all the torturey-angst, just happy to sip blood from some sexy women.
Uh-oh. Couldn’t let Matt know about that. Just a hint of encouragement, and he’d be trying for a threesome. Which made me smile, in spite of myself. After all, my boy toy was wicked cute in a button-down collar kind of way. He was on the swim team, which made him all toned and tan in the right places. If only he was just a little bit older.... Then again, that was part of the appeal, wasn’t it? Proving I could attract someone as hunky as Matt at twenty-nine, after my ex had dumped me for an eighteen-year-old.
Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.
I finally pulled on some jeans, a long pink tank top, baby-doll t-shirt in a darker pink, and a violet hoodie. Like most Nor-Cal coastal communities, Redwood Grove was cool and foggy a majority of the time, but you never knew when the sun was going to burn through the fog. Layering was usually the safest bet.
I didn’t have too far to walk to my first class—the apartment was just a couple blocks away from the campus proper—but today it felt like miles. I’d lost some weight during my double-whammy, and while sure, it was great to have my clothes comfortably loose, I felt as if a strong gust of wind would blow me away. Every once in a while I’d still get hit with a hot flash that made me want to turn around and crawl back in bed.
I hate being sick.
Fog shrouded the campus this morning, condensation dripping from roof eaves and plants. The tops of the redwoods vanished into the mist. I inhaled deeply, loving the smell of leaves, mulch, and a hint of salt air. Then a coughing fit hit me, reminding me that I’d have to enjoy nature a little less enthusiastically for a while.
I walked past the two-story Victorian house I’d shared with my ex-husband, a former professor at Big Red, and flipped it off.
I smiled. While I was sick, I’d had to forego my daily ritual. I’d missed it.
Next I stopped at one of Big Red’s many coffee kiosks for an extra-hot, wet double cappuccino and a blueberry muffin. It cost me an extra five minutes, but if I didn’t eat something I’d spend the next hour clutching my stomach every time it growled, pretending it wasn’t me. And if I didn’t have my caffeine, I might as well have stayed in bed.
By the time I reached D. B. Patterson Hall, the corridors were pretty much cleared out, which meant I was definitely in the late zone. At room 217 I opened the door as quietly as possible, hoping to sneak into the auditorium and find a seat in the back row.
Unfortunately, the door was badly in need of WD-40, and room 217 was one of the smaller auditoriums. It announced my arrival. Loudly.
From where I stood, conspicuous in layers of pink and violet, I could see that almost every seat was filled—including the back row.
“Excuse me... miss?”
A deep male voice hailed me from the front of the room. A tall, drop-dead gorgeous blond guy in his late twenties stood near the lectern. Nice to see someone my own age in class, even if he was a teacher. Learning about buboes and black vomit might be fun after all.
When I say “blond,” I’m talking the kind of hair people describe as freshly minted gold. I couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, but I was betting on sky-blue. His features were regular, other than a bump in his otherwise perfect nose. He looked like an archangel who’d gone a round or two with Rocky Balboa. A little young to be a professor, but I wasn’t about to complain. Damn, he was pretty.
He’d been fussing with papers and a laptop, but now he was just staring. I gave him my most charming smile and did a little toast with my cappuccino cup.
He looked totally uncharmed.
“Any reason you can’t take a seat and join us?” he asked loudly.
Okay, now, no need for sarcasm. But I kept the smile.
“Um, not seeing any empty seats?” I replied.
He pointed to one in the front row.
“Please, be my guest.”
Great. I did my best to ignore the giggles and whispers that followed me down the aisle. I noticed a couple of girls looking very pleased at my embarrassment. Dimes-to-donuts they were hot for teacher.
And the cute asshat wasn’t done yet. As I sat down, he leaned forward from the lectern.
“Any particular reason you’re late, Miss....”
“Ashley,” I said, deciding that was all he deserved to know.
“Close enough,” I answered, shooting for calm and collected. And speaking of close enough, I could see his eyes now. They were, indeed, a very pleasing shade of denim blue. Much more pleasing than his personality—if that was what you could call it. He pulled a piece of paper out of a notebook and ran a finger down it.
I nodded and bit into my blueberry muffin. Now that he had my name, maybe he’d drop it.
“So-o-o....” He drew the word out, and I knew that couldn’t be good. “What made you decide to join us today, given that the first week of class wasn’t to your liking?”
“Not my fault,” I protested. “I’ve been sick,” I added, hoping that would shut him up.
No such luck.
“And now you’re late.”
“Like I said, I’ve been sick.” He raised an eyebrow. “Walker’s,” I added, hoping that might be my “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
The look on his face told me he couldn’t care less.
“Ah, yes, Walker’s,” he said. “The new substitute for, ‘the dog ate my homework.’” That sent a titter through the class.
Did you wake up on the wrong side of bed, or are you always in permanent fucktard mode? I took a deep breath before replying. No way I’d give him the satisfaction of hearing my voice break.
“I sent in a doctor’s note.”
Still no mercy.
“That doesn’t explain today,” he replied, pinning me with those beautiful baby blues.
I’d give my hair a soccer mom cut before I’d cry in front of this jerk.
“It’s still hard to get moving in the morning,” I said between gritted teeth.
“If you didn’t stuff yourself with processed sugar and caffeine, you’d have a healthier immune system.” He stared at my double, extra-hot, wet cappuccino. “I’d think that at your age, you’d know better.” More titters.
I’m going to have to kill him, I thought. What a waste of perfectly good man flesh.
“In fact,” he said, turning to the rest of the class, “Miss Parker here is a perfect example of what not to do if you want to keep up a healthy immune system. She would be one of the first to die in a pandemic.”
I gaped at him. What a tool!
“Excuse me,” I said, “but didn’t a lot of the victims of the Spanish flu die because they had healthy systems? Didn’t their immune response go way over the top, and cause inflammation of the lungs?” Lying in bed for a week, you have a lot of time to read for your classes. My addiction to The History Channel didn’t hurt either.
Jerkwad, however, didn’t bat an eye before shooting back.
“True, but they didn’t have the medical resources we do today,” he countered. “And I guarantee that an uncompromised immune system, coupled with modern medicine, will serve you better than a double latte when fighting the pandemics of the future.”
I swear the girl next to me scooted over. I resisted the urge to sneeze on her Coach handbag.
As I did so there was another loud creak, and a short and skinny little Goth girl slipped in through one of the side doors. She was all decked out in black and purple, with pale pink hair floating around her face like a pastel dandelion. Her black, buckled platform boots said “tough girl,” but her bright smile seemed free of ‘tude. She scurried straight over to my new arch-nemesis.
“Hey, Gabriel,” she said. “Sorry I’m late. My car broke down and I had to take the bus the rest of the way from Maberry.” Gabriel, huh? Like the nasty angel in Prophecy, always blowing his own horn and causing trouble. It fit. And now he had a new victim. I took a sip of my coffee and waited for him to rip her a new one. Then don’t drive cars. I don’t. But “Gabriel” just gave her a half-smile.
“At least you made it,” he said.
I almost choked on my cappuccino. How come Miss Hot Topic got a free pass?
Then he turned and addressed the class.
“Everyone, this is Jamie Ackerman, Professor Fraser’s new intern.”
Ah, so dickwad isn’t the professor? The plot thickened.
“She’ll be helping out in class for the rest of the semester,” he added. The girl next to me, a total Mean Girls type, raised her hand and spoke in a high voice.
“Does this mean you won’t be helping any more?” Great, I was sitting next to Betty Boop, and she was hot for teacher, too. Now I really wanted to sneeze on her bag. Yet she gave me hope....
“No, I’ll still be assisting Professor Fraser, as well,” he announced.
A nearly audible sigh of relief rippled through the auditorium as students whispered amongst themselves.
The side door opened again and the conversations immediately died down. Gabriel practically stood at attention while Jamie turned toward the newcomer like a flower seeking the sun. This had to be Professor Fraser.
A tall, elegant woman with patrician features, clear grass-green eyes, and blonde hair drawn up in a French twist, she commanded attention immediately. Her outfit was a tailored, hunter-green trumpet skirt and jacket with a nipped-in waist. Very retro. She could have been anywhere between forty and fifty-five. Cate Blanchett would play her in the movie.
She strode to the lectern and surveyed all of us with a cool green stare. Her gaze fell on me and she raised an eyebrow. Her Vulcan forefathers would have been proud.
“Ashley Parker,” I said.
“Ah, yes, I received the note from Dr. Albert.” She stared at me sharply, and I wondered why. “Walker’s, yes?”
“Er... uh-huh.” I braced myself for another lecture on nutrition and the evils of caffeine.
“You still look a bit pale,” she said. “Make sure to get plenty of sleep.” With that she clapped her hands together and smiled. “So, Who’s ready to learn about buboes and the difference between bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plagues?
A zombie virus of guest articles, Q&As and excepts from new urban fantasy novel, Plague Town, will be infecting websites, blogs and social media accounts across the globe to offer readers the chance to win a signed copy of Plague Town and have a character named after them in the next novel in the series.
We Love This Book is the first and last stop on the ‘Plague Town Pandemic Tour’.
Collect the final word hidden in CAPS at the end of this article along with a sequence of eight others on blogs and websites outlined in the link below,and tweet the sentence you’ve discovered to @TitanBooks and @zhadi1 with #PlagueTown before 23 April.
CODE WORD 9: HUNGRY
For full details of the tour and terms and conditions visit: http://titanbooks.com/blog/dana-fredstis-plague-town-pandemic-tour/
Plague Town by Dana Fredsti is published by Titan Books.