THE FORTUNATE FEW (2014)
Although they called it the deathless death, it was still death; and few could have imagined a more agonizing one. The victim fell into convulsions, lasting hours, or until the victim could be appropriately restrained and sedated.
Convulsions invariably resulted in coma, heart still beating yet eyes lifted as if seeking a divine reprieve; but if gods existed, they weren’t listening.
It seemed there was no escaping the unremitting scourge that was rendering the species comatose; and yet some did. This was thanks to an antidote, provided to those with sufficient funds to afford it.
Not many people could afford the God pill. Some said it was priced high enough that only the wealthiest few could survive a pestilence of this magnitude. Others said it was the unscrupulous few who took advantage of an opportunity to make their fortune.
What no one could understand was why so few pills had been manufactured. Rumor had it that the most of the pills were destroyed by the very people who sought to benefit from the shortage.
Zahra read the newsfeeds. She knew what to anticipate. Everyone did. And as the virus spread from one nation to the next – quarantines and border restrictions of little use – it was clear that death could not be contained. It came for all, except for those who could buy their salvation in the form of a God pill.
The local community was isolated, at least two hours from the highway that passed through the state, connecting east and west. There was no reason to visit the town unless one had business to conduct there; and few visitors ever did.
Distance, however, had done nothing to curb the relentless impetus of the contagion, as it ravaged congested city and rural enclave alike. The President’s promise that no American would be harmed was proved wrong when New York’s population was halved in a matter of days. The deathless death had come to the land of the free and gave no quarter.
Zahra’s school was closed. Citizens were urged to keep calm, officials promising no visitors. The local road was blocked, preventing all coming and going, whatever the purpose.
Zahra’s father saw no reason to panic. No harm had ever befallen the community where he grew up. Harm was something that happened to other people, something read about on newsfeeds. For this reason, he permitted Zahra and her brother Joseph to visit their friends, provided it didn’t violate curfew.
Neighbors armed themselves with all manner of weaponry, as if a 12 gauge could protect them against a microscopic organism in need of a host.
Zahra didn’t share the quiet confidence of her father, and she didn’t believe that stockpiled ammunition and tough talk would save them. She, like her mother, knew that trouble would come regardless.
“Challenges come,” her mother reminded her. “What matters is how we answer them.”
Zahra’s mother was a pianist, that was until she gave birth to Zahra. Apart from the odd piano lesson given to listless locals, she’d given up on artistic ambition; and yet she always encouraged her children to seek their rightful callings.
Zahra was only seventeen and wasn’t sure if she’d even bother with community college much less a calling. She enjoyed writing lyrics for the music band she imagined herself joining one day. She wrote about loneliness and heartbreak, only to be told she didn’t know enough about such things. And yet she did. She told her brother Joseph everything, every lost love and every misguided word. Her brother merely shrugged his understanding before returning to his own private world of superheroes and villains, many of his own creation.
She asked her brother what he thought of the deathless death. “A hero will come,” her brother assured her. “A hero always comes.”
Zahra didn’t have the heart to contradict him. She knew the value of belief. It’s how they’d endured her father’s unemployment when the last paper mill closed its doors. There were no more government handouts for those in forced obsolescence. Fortunately, family savings sufficed until her father found a job twenty miles away at a nuclear plant, although it was for half the pay. Once the roads were blocked, even remote employment was no excuse to leave town.
Her father simmered, furious that he’d been forced to stagnate at home while officials should have known better than to give voice to panic and confusion. Life would proceed as usual in the weeks ahead, only they would have to rely on the kindness of creditors when bills didn’t get paid on time.
Zahra and her brother knew that this was no ordinary crisis, and that the alarm wasn’t without basis. Her father was a pragmatist at the worst possible time.
Panic had prompted nightly meetings about what to do, people proposing large shelters and pooling resources while others declared they were under no obligation to share anything. Orderly meetings invariably ended in shouts and threats.
Zahra knew there was reason for fear, considering that people were dying, thousands a minute all along the eastern seaboard. Nothing had been shut down in time to fend off the parasitic invasion.
Despite the fear, Zahra had a plan. Although she often grumbled about providing companionship and groceries to the local recluse, the octogenarian widow of the very man who once owned the town paper mill. It irked Zahra that this woman had done so little for years and yet expected the world. Why, thought Zahra, could Ms. Jamison not afford to pay her more than minimum wage despite sitting on millions? Every penny was going to the granddaughter who lived out west, an undeserving girl Zahra vowed to hate.
There was nothing to gain by brooding over the fortunes of the few, most of whom would be buying up all the pills needed to outlast the contagion. Zahra could at least protect her family by asking Ms. Jamison for sanctuary. The capacious property couldn’t have been more secure, its walls and barbed fences a worthy match for even the most intrepid of trespassers.
It was on her recent delivery of groceries and mail that Zahra asked Ms. Jamison what she’d been meaning to ask for days.
“Do you think we could stay here? Until it subsides?”
Ms. Jamison pretended not to understand, claiming to be hard of hearing when, in fact, she didn’t care. But Zahra was ready to plead her case, providing a reminder of her invaluable assistance in recent months and assuring the old woman her family wouldn’t be staying for long.
“What does your family have to do with me?” howled the woman, her face creased with what almost looked like mirth. “Is it my job to take care of them?”
“We’ll help around the house. We’ll all help you for nothing more than what you pay me now.”
“I have automatons for that. You really think you can impose on me like that? What have you done for me? You’re here only to talk to me and I don’t like talking to you. I never asked for your help. And I can ask my son to find someone else. I pay you. What more do you think you deserve from me?”
Zahra long suspected Ms. Jamison’s politics. The old woman was, after all, one of the elect, deserving of all her endowments, if not more. The same could not be said for former mill employees like Zahra’s father.
Zahra explained that it was to protect her family from dying, but the old lady would not be moved by pity. There was still the possibility of sneaking her family into the house, if need be. Would the old woman set her security roids on them if removing them from the premises meant death?
Although Zahra had been paid to keep the old woman company, she couldn’t bear the thought of sharing the same room. Fortunately, it was an automated household, the task of cleaning something the domestic roids did quite handily: mopping up spills, scouring surfaces and giving every surface a gleam. It was a pleasure seeing the benefits of progress, automated devices the height of her knee ever busy and quick to respond to every command.
“Mail,” ordered Zahra. Before long, the droid returned with a few envelopes and a parcel.
Zahra recognized the name of the company on the return label. It read ‘Novus,” which was the very company that manufactured the God pill.
Upon walking the parcel to Ms. Jamison, Zahra hesitated. What if it was the God’s pill? What if she could save lives? What if she and her family didn’t have to die?
Opening Ms. Jamison’s mail was cause for termination, but what did it matter anymore? Zahra had to know.
She unwrapped the parcel, swiping it with Ms. Jamison’s encryption card. She opened the box, suspecting it contained nothing until a small vial fell to the floor. A holoscreen popped open, announcing the arrival of her dose of “Vivet – live again.”
She was elated at the thought of retrieving other vials from the box and racing home to her family. But there were no other vials.
It had come for Ms. Jamison, yet why should the old woman have a chance to prolong her disagreeable life while Zahra wouldn’t make her eighteenth birthday? She read all about the rights of the elect, but she was never entirely convinced that currency alone conveyed entitlement. Couldn’t intelligence and determination count for something?
Zahra knew the old woman didn’t deserve the vial. It was supposed to have been a pill and yet it was merely a few drops of liquid. It was the usual false advertising, all the promises counting for nothing. For all she knew, it was no protection against the deathless death.
She pocketed the vial. She needed time to think, but the more she thought about it, the more she believed she deserved to live and Ms. Jamison deserved to die.
Presenting the mail, Ms. Jamison seemed puzzled.
“That’s everything? Are you sure?”
Zahra feared the old woman knew everything. She’d never felt so transparent.
“It was supposed to come,” said the woman.
“That was all I found,” answered Zahra, gaze averted.
As Ms. Jamison got to her feet, Zahra stepped away. Finding the wrapper, she concealed it inside her school bag. It was too late to take back her lie. She’d always been so scrupulously honest. It surprised her how easy it was to unmake the truth.
As Ms. Jamison examined a holoscreen, no doubt tracking the package, Zahra wished the old woman goodnight and took off.
Town hysteria sobered on something approaching dread. It was news from the coast, where communications were replaced with silence. Cities hundreds of miles inland were reporting blackouts, looting and riots. Lawlessness fueled the fear that the end had come.
Zahra wondered if people welcomed the deathless death as a way out. The nightmare of the world was no longer worth the trouble.
It was a single vial, which wasn’t enough to save Zahra’s family. The only benefit of stealing Ms. Jamison’s medicine was to consign her to the same death everyone was expecting.
Even Zahra’s father expressed concerns, conceding that it would be best if everyone stayed at home. Her mother seconded the suggestion before asking if it was enough. Had others survived back east? There was no way of knowing, not with the newsfeeds so sporadic.
There were invitations to meetings, holotexts opening near the door, inviting the family to a town meeting to resolve the crisis.
“They’ve never agreed on anything before,” noted Zahra’s father. “Now we take care of ourselves.”
Joseph was viewing guerilla footage of victims convulsing in the street, no one to secure and protect them, limbs flailing and heads beating against sidewalks and walls as strangers caught the spectacle. For all Zahra knew, the viewers were probably dead by now too. The streets were lined with bodies, many in full gravity-defying spasm, but most lifeless, eyes and mouths open as shrill cries and car alarms punctuated the silence. A distant salvo of gunfire was a reminder that there were even worse things than death by mindless convulsion.
Zahra turned off the feed, angered by her brother’s morbid fascination with such ghastly spectacle. She remembered the vial in her pocket. She could save her brother, but why shouldn’t she save herself first?
There was still hope that they’d weather the infection, bypassing it altogether. It was possible others had done the same and that reports of ‘no survivors’ was merely the usual fear-mongering to keep people buying guns, ammo, and even Armageddon packs, as if anyone could survive without the usual high priced conveniences.
“Is that what you want for us?” she asked her brother, who continued watching the footage.
“He’s coming,” announced Joseph, without batting an eye.
“The one who’ll save us,” answered her brother.
“And if he doesn’t?” asked Zahra, feeling the vial in her pocket. It was still her plan to save her family from harm. They didn’t deserve to die.
Zahra’s friend Corinne called to invite Zahra’s family to join them in the basement of their home.
“They say the virus floats in the air,” explained Corinne, her voice deadpan. “You just breathe it in. That’s why everyone gets it. But we’ll be underground. We have everything we need, enough for two families.”
Zahra’s home didn’t have a basement. Closing the doors would offer little protection from an air-borne disease this virulent. But Zahra’s father was of no mind to turn to neighbors for help, much less leave the house until the danger subsided.
That night, sleep never came. At best, it was fitful. She remembered earning the power to save the world but forgetting how to use it. It was only a dream, and yet it felt as if she’d already failed everyone.
When sleep did come, her father had begun nailing boards to the windows, to keep death from seeping inside.
“They want us dead,” intoned Zahra’s mother, surprisingly sullen.
“We’ll be fine,” answered Zahra’s father.
“They sent this upon us. They don’t need us anymore. Hungry mouths. That’s all we are. Mouths to feed, bodies to clothe. And they no longer want to pretend they care.”
It was true there wasn’t enough for everyone. Before even the deathless death there were global food shortages and drought. What arable land remained was prone to flooding and to the displacement of millions. Zahra’s town knew little of these seismic changes, but there was no keeping the world at bay for much longer. The contagion was now on its way to ravage rural America just as it had ravaged every other nation.
Calls to family and friends revealed that many had already driven out west in the hope of outrunning the catastrophe. Others dug in their heels, refusing contact with the outside world.
Only the west had news to broadcast, and the western states didn’t know what to expect. From the east, it was silence.
An unexpected knock at the door made everyone cower. Zahra could see the guardians at the front door, Ms. Jamison’s automated bodyguard. Enough money could buy personal security around the clock, although they were often used to harass those without money and influence. Accusations of vagrancy, theft or disrespect for the governing elite were sufficient reason to send a guardian to threaten someone or even escort someone to the local security intake. If you didn’t have a guardian, you kept your head down and maintained a low profile.
Zahra stepped to the door. She could see Ms. Jamison in the rear of a parked vehicle. An accusation had been filed, which meant Zahra would have to provide an answer or concede guilt.
“What are you doing?” hissed her mother.
“I have something she wants,” answered Zahra, as she finally realized what she must do. “But I’ll get what I want too.”
The door had not been locked, and Zahra opened it. Her father grabbed her, but not before the guardians leveled their rifles.
“Are you Zahra Demir?” bellowed the short-statured woman under the helmet.
Zahra produced the vial from her pocket. “Do you want this?” she yelled in Ms. Jamison’s direction.
The old woman gestured frantically from inside the vehicle.
“Don’t move,” barked the other guardian, a faceless man in his helmet; at least they might as well have been faceless, considering they were automated. But as with any guardians, they answered to their owners, and that owner was Ms. Jamison.
As Ms. Jamison opened the vehicle window, Zahra stepped closer.
“Let us stay with you for a few days and you can have this back,” insisted Zahra.
“I don’t make bargains with thieves,” answered Ms. Jamison.
“What did you do?” howled Zahra’s mother from within the house.
“Why does she come away unscathed?” replied Zahra to her mother.
“Because she bought it,” said her father, his hands over his head, a guardian’s rifle to his chest. “Now give it back.”
“She lives and we die?” asked Zahra. “Why?”
“No one ever said we’re dying,” answered her father.
“And are we going to survive this?” she asked her father.
Her father didn’t have an answer.
Zahra turned to face Ms. Jamison’s vehicle, popping open the cap on the vial. “If I pour it out, no one gets to live.”
“Give it back,” demanded Ms. Jamison as she shuffled from the car, bony fingers outstretched.
Zahra took the vial to her mouth. She had no intention of drinking it. She figured the threat would be sufficient.
Ms. Jamison cringed, waving the guardians aside as she stepped close. “Give it back and I won’t report for deviancy.”
“You’ll protect my family,” insisted Zahra.
“You’re a dying breed, little girl. I would do your family a disservice by giving them a chance in a world that no longer needs them. You’ve all outlived your purpose.”
Logic was of no use. But revenge was inviting.
“I can have your whole family committed indefinitely,” threatened Ms. Jamison.
There was no hesitation as Zahra removed the cap and poured the drops into her mouth and swallowed them. Ms. Jamison could call her unworthy, but at least she’d survive.
The old woman shrieked, clawing at Zahra until Zahra shoved her to the sidewalk.
The guardians tackled Zahra and pinned her to the ground, the old woman seething as she leaned over her.
“Leave her alone,” bellowed her father.
Zahra was hoisted to her feet and hauled to Ms. Jamison’s vehicle. It wasn’t just theft, it was a crime of unrepentant disloyalty to the ruling elite, for which there was no end of punishments. Zahra was afraid and yet she regretted nothing.
Kicked and prodded, Zahra fell onto the back seat. Turning, she saw Ms. Jamison seated next to her, fitted with a safety mask.
Peering outside, Zahra could see her family near the door, her mother howling as one of the guardians still held her father at gunpoint. Joseph, however, observed the pandemonium with an air of nonchalance, as if he knew it was meant to happen this way.
As the guardians seated themselves in the vehicle, it began rolling down the street. She could have objected to being driven away by Ms. Jamison’s automated security personnel, but it would have been of no use. Elites were entitled to proceed as they saw fit, while everyone else was expected to follow suit.
Zahra’s family would be punished too, that was if anyone survived the contagion. To question the authority of the elites was the question the entire system, which was tantamount to terrorism. When you failed to do as you were told, you and those who loved you were removed from circulation. Most were offered reconditioning therapy, while the hardened cases were expelled to ungoverned regions some called the liberated zone.
She felt a tear course down her cheek. It wasn’t self-pity. It was the realization that she might never see her family again; that she, despite proving herself undeserving of them, would live and that they might die. Her revenge on Ms. Jamison would cause her parents no end of grief; although if it was the end of the world, there was hope that grief would be short-lived.
It was Ms. Jamison’s gasp that prompted Zahra to peer out the vehicle window. The contagion had come and it looked almost like a flurry of snow.
“Hurry,” commanded Ms. Jamison, as the car sped up, rounding a corner up and up the hill.
As tires shrieked, Zahra’s face hit the seat in front of her, the vehicle slamming to a halt near a central intersection.
Already, there were bodies on the ground, twitching and squirming in teeth-clenched agony. Someone staggered in front of the car and fell.
It was like flakes of ash blanketing the sidewalk. She was afraid and yet she knew she’d ingested the antitode. Did it need time to kick in? And if it had already kicked in, would that mean a lifetime of servitude to work off her errant behavior? She couldn’t bear the thought of belonging to Ms. Jamison, much less any of the self-proclaimed elite who expected so much and gave so little. Life wasn’t worth the trouble if it was at someone else’s behest.
Remembering her father telling her that it was her obligation to follow her conscience, Zahra knew that fear would only prevent her from doing what must be done. Her fate was not Ms. Jamison’s to decide. They could try to kill her but at least she would die demanding recognition of her worth.
Zahra didn’t plan to die, however. She deserved to live and she would live, if at least to spite the elites who belittled her.
Ms. Jamison ordered the guardian to proceed. “They’re all corpses,” she yelled. “Just go.”
The vehicle lifted and dropped as bodies were driven over.
As people staggered from shops, hands to their necks, the vehicle stopped again. Guardians were programmed never to harm humans unless ordered to do so. But before Ms. Jamison could command the vehicle forward, dying be damned, Zahra unlocked her door and leaped out.
Ms. Jamison would be too anxious to seek refuge to waste time on Zahra. Besides, Zahra half expected to die the painful convulsive death she’d witnessed on the broadcasts.
With her hands over her mouth, Zahra ran back home, leaping over bodies in full arm-flailing spasm. She recognized people, but couldn’t bear to look.
No one followed her, but perhaps no one expected her to survive; and yet apart from some difficulty breathing, she’d never felt healthier.
The streets near the trailer homes remained deserted, rooftops covered in the mysterious ash that came bringing death to so many. She could hear crying inside one of the homes. Were her neighbors safe or were closed doors insufficient protection?
Fortunately, the door to her home remained closed. She stepped close, realizing that she couldn’t expect her family to open a door or window without putting their lives at risk. If they knew she was outside, they’d pull her in. But she didn’t need shelter. She would never have survived the trip back home if she weren’t already immune from the deathless death.
Most of the windows were boarded up, but she could find gaps in the boards. She saw nothing at first, and then she could see her brother’s feet protruding from a doorway. Was he laying down or was he already infected? She tapped on the window, but there was no response.
Surely, her family avoided the spores, or whatever form the virus took. Or had the virus come before, unseen and undetected?
She tried another window but could see nothing. Rapping on the window did nothing to attract notice.
Her family needed help, but she realized there was nothing she would do that wouldn’t make things worse. If only she could assure herself they were alright. If only she could see them again.
It was as she turned to seek shelter under a tree that the blow came. One of Ms. Jamison’s guardians had tracked her and knocked her to the ground. Before she could regain her feet, she saw the incapacitator moments before her head felt too heavy to lift; and the world went black.
Zahra awoke in an unfamiliar room, presumably used for storage of replacement parts for the household roids. She imagined herself one of them, locked in indentured servitude to a woman who could buy anything she wanted.
Then she remembered the contagion. What happened to her family? She didn’t know. She could have called if her wristcom wasn’t missing. Did Ms. Jamison take it?
Unsteady on her feet, Zahra stumbled to the door, finding it open. She stepped outside.
Downstairs, she sensed something watching her. Turning, she saw the guardians standing near a wall, gaze transfixed upon the dining table. Stepping close, Zahra realized that Ms. Jamison had been stretched out on the table, arms at her side.
Ms. Jamison’s mouth was stretched in a permanent soundless howl, eyes wide open and fingers arched like claws, as if she’d died suddenly in the heat of hand-to-hand combat.
The closest guardian turned, its empty gaze acknowledging Zahra’s presence.
Ms. Jamison must have been dead. It was the only reason her guardians wouldn’t have immediately restrained Zahra. An owner’s instructions never exceeded an owner’s life.
Zahra stepped away, realizing that Ms. Jamison couldn’t survive the contagion, not without God’s pill, or serum as it should have been called. It was never Zahra’s intent to cause the woman’s death. Shame made her weak in the knees, and yet she was relieved to be alive. But why did life require a death?
Zahra wanted to feel nothing. Ms. Jamison wouldn’t have felt the slightest twinge of remorse, and yet she could hear her mother admonishing her for being selfish. Though why couldn’t she be selfish? Elites were proud of the single-minded pursuit of self-interest as if it were an innate right. Why was it her obligation to give so much and expect so little?
Her parents must have been worried about her, wondering when, if ever, she would return.
Running to the front door, she opened it. The cloudless sky was a pale blue, a gust of wind filling her lungs with something that produced a fit of coughing.
Racing down the hill, she cut across the park to the town center. Cars had crashed alongside the road, victims of the deathless death, bleeding and comatose behind the wheel. In the distance, something was on fire, a plume of smoke billowing into an angry cloud.
The closer she got to the town, the more bodies she found. Only a few twitched. Most lay dormant. Some of the victims were children, their limbs entangled in broken bicycle parts.
There were many familiar faces, even a neighbor in her car, her mouth agape as if she’d died screaming.
The silence was full of imagined shouts and cries. Why had this happened? What had people done to deserve it? It couldn’t have been happenstance. Surely, it was some kind of punishment?
Hearing a motor, she turned. There was a bus cresting the hill, barreling toward her. She stepped to the shoulder and waited.
It was a school bus, the whirring of the motor feeling curiously out of place. Its brakes hissed and squealed as it slowed to a halt near Zahra, idling noisily. The door swung open.
The driver was a young man, his face concealed by what appeared to be a surgical mask.
“You’re not a ghost are you?” asked the man after a moment’s hesitation. “Assure me I’m not seeing things.”
Zahra shook her head.
“Well,” continued the man. “What are you waiting for?”
Zahra climbed aboard, not a thought to where the bus was going. The advice of never traveling with strangers was rendered meaningless. A stranger like this was the only reassurance she had that everything hadn’t been destroyed.
“Where’s everyone else?” asked Zahra.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen all day. How’d you people get the pills?”
“My employer,” answered Zahra almost to herself.
“Someone must have liked you,” answered the man as he put the bus in drive.
Zahra could only shake her head.
“My family’s here.”
“This employer take care of your family like that? Me, I got take what I can. And, no. I didn’t steal a school bus. It got left to me and I’ve got good use for it.”
“Where are you going?”
“The liberated zone.”
All Zahra knew about the liberated zone was it was peopled with terrorists and agitators, renegades and revolutionaries. It was everyone who refused to pledge unflinching loyalty to the governing elite.
Zahra’s father called them fools who thought they could do it all on their own. Her mother parroted the newsfeeds, calling them dangerous people who didn’t think anyone deserved anything.
It all began with the proclamation of self-growing, a community of farmers who no longer trusted corporate cultivation. It was forbidden to plant and sell produce without obtaining the many licenses and permits that only the largest companies could afford. They welcomed everyone including escaped revolutionaries, although what they got were criminals who wanted everything for themselves. As usual, the dream of the free had been co-opted by the greed of the few. Was it always inevitable?
“What about everyone else?” Zahra asked the man.
“Dead,” he answered. “Unless you shit gold and or live in the citadel; or you have friends in high places, or you’re someone like me who refuses to die.”
“No one gave it to me,” she confessed. “I took it.”
The man’s mouth was concealed by the surgical mask, but Zahra was sure he was smiling; although there was no reason for amusement with so many dead.
“I live up here,” she informed him. “To the right.”
“And after everyone dies,” answered the man, his voice thick with cynicism. “The girl went back home and lived happily ever after,”
The man tapped the brakes, slowing to a halt.
“Your old man trade in stolen pills?” he asked. “What else he got?”
“My family’s got nothing to do with it. I stole a vial and I drank it.”
Zahra was desperate to see her family. She knew she should never have left them.
As the bus came to a full stop, the man opened the doors. Zahra leaped out, dashing up a side street to the trailer homes.
A few buildings were on fire. Others had been broken into, windows framed with glass shards. The animals remained unharmed, a cat scurrying across the road and a dog barking from a back yard. A murder of crows cawed noisily overhead.
Zahra reached her home. The doors were still securely locked and the windows boarded up. She knocked loudly.
Listening, she heard nothing. She knocked again. Still no one answered. Couldn’t they see her at the door? She’d come home. Everything was going to be alright.
She pulled at the door knob, shaking the door frame, but it was no use. Her only chance of getting inside was by breaking a window. But she didn’t want to put her family in harm’s way if the air were still infected. Instead, she resolved to wait.
She realized the man from the bus had followed her until he was standing at the front door.
“Is this where they live?” he asked calmly.
The sound of gunfire was deafening. She turned as the front door swung open, wood splintering as the man disappeared inside, a pistol at his side.
“Hey,” she howled, leaping to her feet. What trouble had she invited into her home? What use was surviving a global catastrophe only to be murdered by a thief.
By the time she reached the front door, the man was already stepping out. Grabbing her shirt, he yanked her away.
“Let’s go,” he growled.
“What did you do?”
“What did I do? What about the sociopaths manufacturing human extinction? I survive and it looks like you were lucky enough to do the same.
“Dad,” yelled Zahra into the house. She could see no one.
“There’s nothing to see,” growled the man, his lean physique exceedingly strong.
“My family,” she implored, pulling herself free.
“They’re gone,” he declared.
“There’s not there?” she gasped. Had they gone looking for her? With the air still pregnant with disease, how could they have survived without an antidote?
“I want to see for myself,” she insisted.
“It’s over here. There’s no future here. Your only chance is out west in the biodomes that grow everything you can imagine. It’s amazing what’s possible in the desert. I’ll take you. You’ll start a new life.”
“My life is here.”
“You’ll die here. You wanted to live but you choose this? You might as well have died like the rest.”
“My family,” she pleaded, still determined to set foot in the house, but the stranger was too strong.
“Nothing survived, little girl. Nothing. The sooner you get up and move on, the sooner you’ll show them that you didn’t deserve this. That no one deserves it. I can’t let you stay here. I let you stay here and they win.”
“This is my home,” she begged, tears moistening her cheeks.
“This place is a death sentence. We survived. Maybe we weren’t supposed to, but we did. Would your family want you to die here too? Whatever you did to get that vial, you did it for a reason.”
Zahra collapsed. She knew the truth without having to be told. Her family was dead. It wasn’t her fault, but for whatever reason, she’d been granted an opportunity to live. It wasn’t an accident.
“They’re dead,” she answered as she stood up, refusing to fear the truth. “You can tell me. I know. But I’ll see them one last time. And I’m not a little girl. I make my own decisions.”
The man studied her face a moment before stepping aside. But as she prepared to enter the house, she realized she couldn’t. To return was to embrace loss. Yet to walk away was to claim a future so many were denied.
Zahra would claim the future, to spite the scoundrels who could shrug off the murder of billions. Nothing that happened that day was an accident, and there was no blaming it on nature alone.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done,” her mother once told her. “What matters is what you want.”
It was true. Everything was yet to come. If she set foot in the house, she would never leave. It would be like choosing misery and death.
Zahra felt the man’s hands bracing her shoulders. “None of this is for nothing. I promise you that. There’ll be a reckoning. One day. Remember the hurt. Never forget it because when you forget it, nothing will ever change. Remember it and justice will be done.”
The man stepped away. Zahra had made a choice to follow the man and yet she couldn’t convince her feet to walk away.
“Who died so you could live?” asked the man as he turned to face her.
“An old woman who hated me.”
“Did you hate her?”
Zahra felt nothing. There was nothing worth feeling when everything you loved was taken away. Punishing someone she once despised was no recompense for that.
“I hated myself,” she confessed to her surprise. It was how she was trained to think, that mistreatment at the hands of the governing elite was always deserved. If equality had to be earned, most people never earned it, never had enough money to make their voices heard.
She was nothing, although she desperately wanted to become someone. She kept Ms. Jamison company for over a year in the hope that she might benefit from Ms. Jamison’s influence in the town. But if anything, Ms. Jamison thought Zahra was overpaid for sitting idle when roids did all the work.
The more Zahra had weathered Ms. Jamison’s contempt, the more she came to hate herself. It was why she stole the vial from her employer. She didn’t want to hate herself anymore.
“Better to hate me than hate yourself,” said the man. “They kick you and expect you to thank them for it. But one day their automated world will fail them and they won’t know what to do. The citadels will fall and it will be our turn to take what we want. What do you want?”
“I want life to mean something,” she answered. What meaning could there be without the people she loved most? She wanted to protect them and yet all she managed to do was put them in harm’s way. If they were safe, they were better off without her; although she knew they were dead.
The man took her hand. “What we do, we do for everyone else who couldn’t.”
“Why do we deserve that chance and they don’t?” she asked, convinced she’d done nothing to deserve it.
“We’re the fortunate few,” answered the man, turning his face as if to disguise a secret sadness.
Zahra didn’t feel fortunate. It felt as if she was being punished for something.
A finger brushed away her tears. Other fingers curled over her hand. Zahra imagined her father come to assure that everything would be alright. She closed her eyes, her body as light as air.
Zahra didn’t remember walking to the bus. And as she sat in one of the front seats, she imagined a morning when the bus was full of children. Those children were probably dead by now. Someone had determined their fate, the fate of billions.
It was the end and yet it was a beginning, but would anything gained make up for everything lost? It was like she’d died when everyone else died. And now she was expected to live again.
She closed her eyes and imagined the past behind her and the future far ahead. She imagined the bus driving faster and faster. She never wanted it to stop.