02: Getting Dirty

Seeding Hope Among the Ashes

02: Getting Dirty

 

“Damn, I expected the treatments to be messy, but I wasn’t expecting this!” Natalie exclaimed, observing the atrocious conditions as they approached the remains of the abandoned VCU West Hospital. Overwhelmed after the city’s minimal social services collapsed, the hospital staff had struggled on, simply dumping the dead outside in the hope they could bury them in the future. The huge mass of limbs and lifeless eyes stood in a silent testament to the horrors of those final weeks, ensuring no one would venture near.

“I know. I’m hardly enthused about it, but David had to do this himself, so I was expecting it,” Debbie explained as she fought her inclination to shiver with revulsion. “That’s how Monique and I first met him. She remained by the hospital in case anyone needed assistance and I come along with an injury. David arrived to recover the same things we’re searching for.”

“These guys managed to gather so many useful things; you’d think they’d have found this stuff on their own. Or maybe we could just do without,” Natalie said, surveying the ghastly remains.

“No, the items we’re looking for won’t be available in a doctor’s office and the fact everyone feels the same as you ensures they wouldn’t have been disturbed since.” Reaching the front door of the hospital, Debbie prepared herself, grasped the handle and pulled it open.

The smell assaulted them, striking their noses like a blow to the face. Most of the decay-promoting microbes were destroyed by the plagues before they accomplished much, but they achieved enough to produce a powerful stench. Both she and Natalie wore high quality air masks, but they provided little protection against what they faced. There were dead everywhere. As the corpses accumulated, hospitals had focused on warehousing the sick. As the staff started falling victim themselves, any attempt to clean up were abandoned. Monique, a nurse at a hospital near David, knew enough to get out before it was too late, so Debbie assumed the last staff here were mostly good Samaritans who couldn’t bear the idea of everyone dying alone and unaided.

Natalie grasped her arm before they could enter. “Are you sure we’re completely immune? I know David and Alice are, but if their treatment doesn’t supply one-hundred percent immunity, we’ll never survive this exposure.”

Closing the door, Debbie took a cleansing breath before responding. “Yes, I’m sure. Monique and Mattie helped in the different treatments and never contracted the plague.” Debbie took another look at her friend to be sure she was OK before continuing. “There’s no sense taking unnecessary risks. Keep away from the dead and we’ll get in and out quickly. You know what we need, so hopefully we can finish fast.”

Natalie nodded, frowning about the task ahead. Taking a deep breath, Debbie reopened the door and led them in, moving quickly so the stench wouldn’t overwhelm them. The lobby of the hospital wasn’t the wide-open, welcoming antechamber of before. Now the large expansive space was filled with corpses. After the initial meteor shower shattered most of the windows and the lack of electricity disabled the elevators, hospitals moved the majority of their functions to the lower floors. When the patients grew too numerous, the remaining staff gave them blankets in the lobby simply to give them a little comfort where they could easily monitor them. What remained, instead of coffee and gift shops, were the dead spread across the floor, their features permanently frozen in the grimaces of their deaths.

Debbie took off at a run, so Natalie rushed after her without examining anything, figuring her friend knew what she was doing. Debbie headed to the elevators, only to duck into the stairway behind them. Once there, both girls gasped for air. The stairway, though hot and sticky from the heat and stale air, was at least easier to manage than the rest of the building. There were still corpses scattered along their route, but there wasn’t as much room for them. These had died on their own, rather than having been parked here by the staff.

Ascending the stairs two at a time, Debbie avoided the first floor. “There will be more dead here,” she explained as they passed, speaking over her shoulder. “Those too sick to function would be on the lower floors. Hopefully the equipment on the upper floors is uncontaminated.” She stopped at the 2nd floor door, turning to give Natalie last-minute instructions.

“If you find a useable gurney, just dump any bodies rather than trying to move them. We also need equipment—instruments and supplies—so grab whatever you can. We don’t know how much electricity these folks have, but we’ll require whatever monitoring or other electronic equipment you can find, even if they can’t use it here.” It was difficult for Natalie to hear her through the thick industrial facemask, but Debbie didn’t slow down. “Check the patient rooms for useable equipment,” Debbie suggested, sounding like a seasoned professional several decades older than she was. Natalie leaned on that experience, doing as instructed. “Pay attention to storage or medical closets. Use the crowbars we brought to break into anything you need. I’ll check the upper floors for any useful medical supplies. Try to find the private rooms for less … used gurneys. Don’t be afraid to run outside if necessary. But if you do, remember you need to return and finish.”

With that Debbie opened and held the door for Natalie, who ran through. She turned in time to see Debbie dashing up the stairs. Natalie no longer had her friend’s experience to count on.

Running down the hall, Natalie couldn’t help but glance at the bodies lining the halls. The only available gurneys had bodies piled on them and looked thoroughly contaminated. But the corpses she observed were odd. Despite being here for so long in the still warm summer weather, they didn’t seem to rot. Despite their stench, the skin didn’t appear mottled, peeling or decaying. Instead they seemed to mummify, even in the warm, humid air; something she hadn’t thought possible. Without anything to decompose the flesh from within, it didn’t seem to decay, meaning the smell had to come from something else. She assumed that was what Alice’s dog, Lassie, smelled when it identified sources of infection. The disease itself, in these concentrations, had its own obnoxious smell.

Almost bumping into a cart, Natalie shook her head just as her foot caught on the outstretched hand of a long deceased businessman. She took several stumbling steps before she recovered, almost landing face first in a pile of the undecaying dead. She decided she needed to focus. She could worry about what occurred later, once they were safely away. She might be immune, but she couldn’t think of a more disgusting event than lying among these dead.

Skipping the first several doors, she chose a private room at random. Kicking the bodies leaning against it out of the way, she yanked the door open and rushed in. She closed it behind her to keep the stench of one room from breaching the others. She didn’t expect much of a difference—semi-putrid air isn’t much better. The room, though initially private, was stocked with bodies. There were between five and six bodies on each bed, lying in alternate directions on their sides to maximize space. Those not lucky enough to warrant such comfort during their dying moments lay sprawled against the walls. Even so, the air was easier to breathe than it had been in the hallway. With the windows shattered and the floor near the window heavily damaged, there was nothing blocking the flow of air. Corpses lay on planks of plywood. She guessed the patients pulled down the planks meant to protect them from the elements to protect them from the cold tile floors. She also shivered with the images of the plague’s free access across the city.

The room itself held nothing of use. Any electronic equipment had been removed as pointless and the most she could do with the heavily laden and soiled gurneys was to push them out the open window for easier disposal later. Taking a last gulp of air, she dashed into the squalid hallway again.

Having a better idea of what to look for, Natalie searched for smaller doors, realizing the wider doors were designed for gurneys while the smaller ones were for storage or offices. Picking one, she found shelves of badly folded linens and wrinkled, disarranged hospital gowns. Slamming the door shut, she continued on, checking a door on the other side. That room was like the first, though there were fewer bodies stacked in it. Noticing a dead nurse crumpled by the door, she grabbed her stethoscope, figuring those would come in handy. She also checked for keys to restricted supply areas, but she had none. She assumed the gurneys were useless, considering the piles of accumulated feces lying under them. Suppressing her gag reflex, she again ran out into the hallway.

Trying another smaller door, she found it locked. Assuming that indicated it was locked earlier in the crisis, she pulled out her pry bar and made quick work of the flimsy lock, kicking the door open. No matter what happened, no one would ever attempt to use these facilities again, so there was no sense keeping them pristine. This room had no one in it, which she thanked the heavens for, but the private desk was covered in open books. Glancing at one, she saw it was a medical text with various sections highlighted. She guessed the non-medically trained volunteers had eventually turned to them in order to figure out how to treat the sick. Noticing a locked filing cabinet, she broke into it too. There she found a gold mine: a couple of boxes of hand sanitizer, new gloves, unused needles and surgical blades. Unfolding the plastic bag she’d stuck in her jeans, she dumped them in before exiting the room.

Reaching an intersection, she was about to head down the main hall when she had a sudden intuition and went the other direction down the smaller corridor. Her way was blocked by a cardkey locked door. Taking that as a good sign, she forced the door and pushed it open. Inside she found a relatively pristine space with the doors and walls made of Plexiglas. She instantly recognized it as an isolation ward. Hoping anything they had was as dead as the patients, she continued on. She assumed it mostly held the usual drug-resistant staphylococcus (MRSA) patients most hospitals were plagued with. She hoped the MRSA strain hadn’t survived exposure to the incredibly potent plague viruses.

Trying the next door, she found it locked to prevent accidental exposure from entering the wrong room. Using her pry bar to shatter the glass door, she dumped the last patient off the relatively pristine gurney. He seemed to have died before he succumbed to the plague, so the gurney’s pads remained clean. Natalie hoped it wasn’t coated in MRSA contaminations as she pulled it out the door. She also stopped to add a spare heart monitor and the nearby drip stand. Examining a smaller equipment closet, she discovered another steal, two portable defibrillators. She threw those on the gurney along with another couple boxes of sanitizers, gloves and hospital gowns. There wasn’t much else of use, aside from the better quality filtered mask she removed from a nurse’s corpse. It might be contaminated, but it should be reusable once they cleaned and sterilized it.

Having a full gurney, she headed out, rushing as fast as she could through the crowded hallway as she grew dizzy from the stale air. She couldn’t suppress the impressions of plague causing the dizziness. Despite knowing she was immune, she couldn’t keep the paranoia of the Great Death’s potency from her imagination.

Reaching the stairs, she stopped to consider her options. If she dumped the supplies, she could conceivably dismantle and collapse the gurney, but she wasn’t fond of that idea. Instead she propped the door open, got in front of the gurney and pulled it down the stairs after her, using her strength to prevent it from tumbling down on her. The crowded stairway made her progress slow, and the stale air made her limited breathing even more difficult, especially sucking in the limited amount of fresh air through a heavy-duty mask, but she struggled on. The plastic bags she’d used to protect each item from cross-contamination allowed her to tie them onto the gurney, allowing her to concentrate on stabilizing the larger electronic devices.

Swearing to herself as she struggled, she wondered what Debbie was up to, knowing she was facing her own difficulties. If either of them had something collapse on her, there would be almost no way to locate her without knowing where she’d gone. She added few curses for Alice for having Bogarted all the military headsets.

Opening the ground floor door, she again held her breath as she rushed through the crowded atrium. When she finally opened the outer door, pulling her gurney behind her, she sucked in a lungful of fresh air.

She made another three trips inside, only returning when she’d gathered a significant amount of supplies. She left them lying outside, not afraid of anyone stealing her stash. There was unlikely to be anyone about, and anyone stupid enough to risk stealing infected hospital supplies would only be asking for death anyway. Each trip was a little easier as the air inside the hospital was infused with fresher air from outside, and she now knew her way past the obstructions. She was tempted to mount a rescue mission for Debbie, when she suddenly appeared around the far end of the hospital, guiding two gurneys of her own.

“I came down the back staircase. I uncovered more supplies than I could carry, but I discovered a few things I couldn’t find elsewhere: compressed air, magnification goggles and bottles of anesthetics. I also found the hospital pharmacy. They’d exhausted the antibiotics and painkillers, but I scooped up several bags of pills. We’ll have to identify them later, but I figured they’d last where the rest won’t.”

It took some careful packing to get everything stored in their makeshift ambulance, but once they did, they drove back, never casting a last look back at the towering symbol of death and former magnanimity.

________________________

“OK, we’re beginning the procedure now,” Debbie announced as she finished inserting the needle and started the infusion, “so let’s go over the final details. You won’t be able to remain for long.”

“How long will the process take?” Nate asked, biting his lip as he watched the two girls prepare their patients. The uninfected had been relegated to the far side of the room to prevent accidental contagions.

“It generally takes around five days, though we can’t be any more precise than that. It varies with the health of each individual,” Natalie explained. “A few cases have lasted as few as for to as long as six days. Recovery takes a while longer.”

“What’s that you’re setting up?” Betsy asked, looking nervous about the antiseptic nature of the process.

“It’s a defibrillator. It’s common for people’s heart to stop several times during the treatment, so it helps having one fully charged when we begin. That way we won’t need to search for it when we need it.

“Their hearts stop?” Wilber asked.

“Calm down,” Debbie cautioned. “You need to keep your blood pressure, breathing and heart rate as controlled as possible. But yeah, we told you this is serious. You’ll be lucky if all that happens is your heart stops. The reason the rest of you can’t stay is because there will be bodily fluids everywhere and it’s highly contagious.”

“More contagious than walking through an infected hospital?” Rufus asked.

“Much,” Debbie assured him. “The air in the hospital is stale and heavy, but most of the humidity has dried. Here, they’ll be fresh and the contaminants are only dangerous when they’re damp. It’s how the viruses transfer mechanism works.”

“It doesn’t sound pretty,” Betsy remarked, making a face.

“Believe me, it’s not,” Natalie answered, checking her supplies once again.

“What are the odds we won’t survive?” Wilber asked, visibly swallowing.

Natalie stopped, realizing that while this was a serious concern, she needed to get them off this pessimistic track.

“Considering any single plague is well over seventy percent fatal and that all the plagues together are one hundred percent fatal, your odds are damn good. But the issue isn’t how likely you are to die. You’ve got to remember why we’re doing this. You aren’t doing this for yourselves. Hell, believe me, if you were only thinking of yourself, you wouldn’t survive. When I went through it myself, I prayed hundreds of times for the sweet release of death. No, you’re undertaking this for everyone within a hundred miles of here, their kids, your kids and the continued survival of the human race. No matter how hard it might be, you’ve got to continue, because if you don’t, you’re condemning everyone you know to a certain death.”

“But two volunteers takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?” Emanuel protested.

“Hardly,” Debbie scoffed. “While we planned on handling two to account for any unexpected deaths, your continued existence depends on sufficient genetic diversity to survive as a distinct community and on your representing a large enough disparity in blood types to treat everyone else. Even if you were a universal donor, if there’s only one of you, a simple accident or random heart attack could endanger the entire community.”

Natalie glanced up from her equipment. “We don’t mean to overwhelm you, but it’s important to remember that this is bigger than just the five of you. We’re trying to save the whole human race. While we’ve saved a handful of people, there’s no way we have enough survivors to continue for long, and if this winter is as bad as we fear, there will be another wave of deaths soon. While we know how difficult and painful this is, that information doesn’t help you. What does is knowing how much everyone relies on you. Your friends, neighbors, those survivors you haven’t even met yet and those hiding in damp basements fearing exposure too much to reveal themselves. That’s what will get you through this. Surviving the next couple of days with be the most significant event of your lives. How many people do you think will remember Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Beyonce in another ten years? Not a damn person. Instead they’ll all thank you for what you’re about to undergo, because what you pay for with your own sweat and blood will buy the survival of everyone else across the globe. Someone in Phoenix might never know you, but everyone living here will.”

“And you’ll be here if anything happens?” Betsy asked, looking directly at the two girls, each much younger than anyone else in the room.

“We’ll only leave if we need something, in which case only if you’re being taken care of, and then we’ll return right away,” Natalie assured her. “We’re in this for the long haul. This is our priority. This isn’t like the hospitals where someone tosses a body out of a speeding car hoping someone will warehouse them until they die. No, we plan on sitting here, cleaning you off, forcing you to drink and talking to you to keep you active.”

Betsy looked relieved at the simple assurance, although Wilber still looked disturbed.

“What about us? What can we do while we wait?” Rufus asked.

“Yeah, can we help somehow? Bring you snacks, give you a break?” Nate asked. “I’m not sure we can stand waiting around not knowing what’s happening.”

“No, we don’t want any of you coming anywhere near this room,” Debbie insisted. “If you want, you can remain in the outer room and we’ll let you know how things are going, but everyone in here will be highly contagious until their fevers pass and we can scrub down every inch of this office.”

“We’ve got plenty of food and water,” Natalie said. “You can do other things though. Even though you’re the only ones here, word of this is likely to spread. Don’t ask me how, but anyone passing by will notice what’s happening and be curious about it. You’ll need to keep an eye out. If you see signs of anyone, leave them gifts of water, food and some of those charged phones we left you. Beyond that, you need to continue collecting resources. Discovering caches of stored food is good, but collecting water, identifying places you can grow gardens and gathering enough tools to maintain a source of electricity are all going to be necessary.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure everyone keeps busy,” Emanuel announced with a meaningful glance at the others. “We realize how vital this is and we won’t waste the opportunity. Until now, we were merely waiting for the inevitability of a painful death, but you’re granting us the benefit of hope. Hope for the future, for a community, friends, family and a way forward. We’re each committed to this and none of us are going to go quietly, no matter how attractive death may be.”

“Here,” Natalie said, handing out two mobile phones. “While we’re occupied, you should listen to these just so you’ll know what’s going on. You’ll need to be familiar with the process when it’s your turn. These contain recordings of David treating someone. The strange thing is, while the blood transfusion allows them to survive the plagues, it’s his specific technique which allows the patients to survive the treatment.”

“You’ll notice David sings throughout the procedure, detailing the lives and deaths of people the patients never knew, but it’s a necessary part of the treatment.” Debbie leaned against a gurney, taking the time to focus on everyone. As this was a vital part of the process, she continued training these individuals about the treatment so they could do it themselves. “It seems odd singing to people who are unresponsive, but the nursery rhyme approach is calculated. The logical left hand side of the brain shuts down because of the pain. By singing, we connect to the more emotional right hemisphere, which remains awake focusing on the pain. The story about everyone who came before gives enough information to force the logical part of the brain to remain both awake and alert, while reminding the patients what they are fighting for. The stories of how everyone fought up to this point, stresses how important the entire process is. The story is captivating and it’s what gives each of us the strength to pull through the process.”

“And you’re confident they’ll both survive this treatment?” Rufus asked, glancing nervously at Betsy.

“No, we’re not,” Debbie admitted. “We’ve lost several people to the treatment, but the survival rate is much better than you’d have if you caught any single plague. Those were also complicated by other issues like the age of the participants and how they were infected. So we’re confident they stand a good chance of surviving. But again, their attitudes are a necessary component. This is a much tougher fight than any soldier has ever fought. This is a short internment in the larger scheme, but it will seem like ages. Having survived this, it will define the rest of your lives. Nothing will ever seem the same again, just as life now is utterly different than it was before the Great Death started.”

“All right.” Betsy awkwardly tried to make a dismissive motion without getting tangled up in the drip lines. “You’ve made it clear how important this is. What else do we need to know?”

“You basically know everything required,” Debbie assured her. “The best thing for you now is to simply marshal your strength and make any goodbyes you want.”

“Gee, thanks for the pep talk,” she replied, rolling her eyes, giving Debbie hope she had the right attitude.

“How safe will we be outside?” Nate asked.

“You should be fine,” Natalie assured him. “We set up a battery operated dehumidifier to keep the risk of cross contamination down, but I wouldn’t lurk outside the door. What’s more, we’ll be moving in and out, so I wouldn’t come any closer than the outer office.”

“We also supplied you with high qualify masks, though they’re in very limited supply,” Natalie added.

“Don’t waste your supplies. We managed to find a delivery truck outside one of the medical centers which had a lot of necessary equipment like gloves, masks, gowns and bandages, so we’re set. In fact, we can set you up when you move on.”

“OK, I hate to rush this, but we don’t want to risk exposing you beyond this. We’re going to chase you out while we focus on these two,” Debbie added, doing just that.

________________________

Debbie and Natalie tried to keep Betsy and Wilber’s spirits up, discussing what the procedures entailed in order not to scare them too much. But the unspoken threat was clear to everyone. As their symptoms began to appear they kept pressing their patients to continue drinking water and remain positive. They’d avoided singing too soon for fear they wouldn’t have the strength to continue. But as words began to fail Betsy and Wilber and the silences grew, they knew they couldn’t put it off any longer.

Debbie began singing softly, forcing the two tossing and turning on their gurneys to stop and pay attention, which was part of the process. But as she sang the now familiar song of David and Alice’s history, her voice rose with pride. She didn’t want to sully all they’d accomplished by mumbling their praise.

And the story was captivating even for two who’d never known the participants. Both patients grew quiet as they listened intently, marveling in the personal details and travails of those who’d gone on before. They hoped each one would pull through, or would at least help the others survive. They grew to love each person from the sung description of what they’d experienced. They marveled at how courageously they’d struggled while others either hid or attempted to inflict further damage on those around them. They silently cheered Ellen, who outwitted David, encouraging him to take on more survivors, even when he tried to keep them at arms’ distance. They smiled as the two girls described Alice’s manipulations of everyone, appreciating the underhanded tactics of a devoted mind in one so young. They compared her to those currently treating them; realizing age had no bearing on personal strength or commitment.

They felt the familiar sting of loss over Flora’s family, pain they’d each experienced themselves, and appreciated how quickly she’d found a new home where she not only fit in but was welcomed as a full member. They grinned weakly at the enthusiasm of Alice’s classmates, and felt comforted when they accepted the offered olive branch, hoping they’d have similar successes in the future. They also suffered the disappointment at how some people turned on each other, as those David tried to help turned against him, forcing David to kill those few who survived, gaining no ground for themselves in the process.

They were too dehydrated to cry over Linda’s death, though it hurt them no less. They realized how necessary the strength of fellow survivors was, and David’s pain seemed almost stronger than what they were suffering. But they rallied when he turned his suffering into action, setting out to stop the widespread criminal behavior, reveling in the very public displays he made of the miscreants he caught.

As the song revealed the fate of each beloved character, they lamented the loss of another potential leader, each willing to help others survive. But the songs made clear what they offered to the continued struggle and how the struggle carried on after their deaths. They struggled to hold their breaths during the final passages as Debbie related how the few survivors died, one after the other in their lonely shared cabin. They agonizing over the apparent death of both Ellen and Alice, even though they knew Alice had survived—the pain she represented was no less real.

When Debbie sang about David finally closing his eyes, losing his desperate bid to remain awake for his daughter, they experienced the frustration over the power of inevitability, and it reinforced their resolve to fight its amazing pull. But when she reached that stage, Debbie finally fell silent, her voice failing as tears streamed down her cheeks with the emotions of the scene.

Then, as they struggled with the all-encompassing silence, Natalie began softly singing of David opening his eyes again. She sang of his struggles to pull himself together and of how his first thoughts at realizing he was still alive was to seek out those closest to him. Even though they knew how dangerous exposure to an infected individual was, they marveled at the personal commitment needed to cradle your companion’s dead body. And when she sang of Alice’s miraculous recovery their hearts sang, just as Natalie’s voice grew stronger to reflect the emotions coursing through both those in the tale and those in the room. They were sad to hear of David’s anguish over losing his devoted Ellen, but that loss represented the acceptance they’d all had to deal with. David’s bravely putting that aside to encourage his daughter filled them with hope that the future was as bright as he imagined it, even if it also promised to be as dark as what had already occurred.

As Natalie carried on the song, Debbie checked on their patients. They’d been lying with them so they could hold them steady and monitor their progress. Natalie held the smaller Betsy while Debbie cradled the shivering Wilber. They’d clean them up every time they soiled themselves, checking their vitals, examining their eyes, monitoring their fevers and wiping them down as Natalie’s song continued. When she returned, comforting Wilber in her arms once more, Natalie continued as she recounted how David and Alice discovered Mattie.

Debbie took over for the portion of the tale which most directly impacted her: David and Alice’s trip to the hospital to look for supplies where they’d discovered Monique, the nurse, and the young girl who’d come to the abandoned hospital with an injury, a girl named Debbie Allen.

She sang of their relief at finding not just a single survivor, but discovering there was a whole community, equipped with supplies, electricity and plans for the future. However, her relief was tempered by the discovery they were contagious. Debbie was willing to stay, not eager to abandon the promise of hope for the unlikely chances of exposure—especially when they faced exposure on a constant basis out on the streets. She continued, recounting how they’d stopped at the nearby police station to regroup where they discovered another group of Alice’s friends. Knowing they couldn’t turn their back on them, Monique took them to David’s redoubt, to Debbie’s and their delight.

Her song reflected the conflicting emotions of fear of accidental exposure and the promise of safety, companionship and hope for the future. Despite Monique’s fears, Debbie sang of her acceptance of the risks—a decision aided by her growing attraction to the strange, solitary man.

Natalie took over as Debbie got up to replenish their supplies and clean up the growing mess. As Betsy and Wilber grew sicker, they messed themselves more frequently, but neither teenager hesitated in the slightest. They comforted them, supplied liquids to replace their lost fluids and then scrubbed the area clean between their many other duties.

As the two girls continued on their alternating singing and caring duties, the extent of the girls’ commitment bore through the ill pair’s miseries. Their patients’ pain increased and they lost their ability to speak, falling into unconsciousness frequently—even though they continually fought to regain consciousness to listen to the rest of the tale—the two girls never halted. When everyone across the country was terrified of approaching within shouting distance of anyone else, these girls dove headlong into the care of two incredibly sick individuals unable to care for themselves. What’s more, they did it with a tenderness and caring greater than anything their past lovers or family would have. They didn’t slip out for cigarettes or booze. They didn’t run off to work or beauty parlors. They weren’t distracted by friends or kids. They were in this to the end, and both Betsy and Wilber knew they could count on them no matter what. As the two girls settled in again, the two struggled to listen that much more attentively, resisting the exhaustion of their illness, wanting to witness more of the lives and feelings of their two caretakers.

By the time Natalie finished recounting her own rescue and treatment from the plague—an effort threatened by the people she counted as her friends—Betsy and Wilber fell into an uneasy slumber. Natalie continued to hum and talk to them, but since they weren’t responding, the song took the form of continuing reassurance. The two sickly forms were anything but unaware though. Although they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and would drift in and out of consciousness, they struggled to listen to all that was being said, even when the topic was how they were doing. Now that the two teens had shown how dedicated they were, they wanted to prove themselves worthy of their faith—even if all they could do was listen to snippets of conversation they couldn’t respond to.

Debbie and Natalie were familiar with what they were experiencing, so while they didn’t continue to sing complicated tales, they continued to discuss what they were doing, what they hoped for and how their two wards would carry on these same duties once they recovered. After a while of distracted cooing, Natalie resumed singing while Debbie took a quick nap. She sang about their new roles, where they were going and what they hoped to achieve: how they wanted to create a network of communities which could trade necessary resources and extend their reach without stretching anyone’s limited resources. It had been a day and a half, and they knew they had a long ways yet to go.

________________________

Natalie got up to check on Wilber again. While Debbie took a quick nap, she was alternating between both patients. Despite having two people share the load, it didn’t really help much. Whenever one girl lay down, the other would need something, unable to go for it without abandoning their wards. That wouldn’t be considered such a risk, but they were both aware how quickly a crisis could occur. In addition, the smallest sound; a cough, a painful gasping breath, someone not breathing properly; would be enough to jolt the supposedly sleeping person awake.

Natalie wiped Wilber down, knowing smearing his sweat over his flesh would help cool him as it evaporated over a wider area. Water just didn’t have the same effect. She got him to sip a little more juice, Gatorade actually—mostly by dribbling the liquid in his mouth—and combed his damp, sticky hair with her fingers. As she straightened the sheets which had clung to his legs, the battery-powered alarms they’d hooked up rang out.

“Wha…? What’s that?” Debbie asked, sitting upright.

“It’s Betsy’s heart monitor,” Natalie replied, searching under the table for the defibrillator they’d stored there.

Debbie tried to rub the exhaustion from her eyes. “Need help?”

“I don’t know. Let me see if she responds,” she answered as she connected the leads. Debbie got up and stepped up to check on Wilber while Natalie was fretting with Natalie. However, what she saw shocked her completely awake.

“Shit! The evil spirits must be out. Wilber’s convulsing!” Debbie announced, holding him in place so he didn’t injure himself.

“What?” Natalie asked, stopping momentarily to glance back at the thrashing good-old-boy. “What’s he suffering from?”

“I don’t know. All I can guess is he’s having a reaction to the blood transfer. Where’s the EpiPen?”

“It’s in my medicine bag on the counter,” Natalie said, unable to ignore Betsy for long.

Debbie ran over and started pawing through the medical bag. Growing frustrated when she couldn’t find the auto-injector, she dumped the contents onto the counter. Pushing everything else aside, she found it and ran back, even as Natalie yelled “Clear!” shocking Betsy.

Betsy’s body arched off the gurney, her long damp locks swinging and her sweat flying from her jerking body, striking Natalie. Betsy took a gasping breath, then fell back as the alarm sounded again.

“Shit! It didn’t work. I’m cranking the juice up.” Natalie prepared to deliver another jolt. “What’s with Wilber?” she asked, wondering what was taking so long.

“I’m having second thoughts,” Debbie admitted, running her hand over Wilber’s forehead. “If he was suffering from an anaphylactic reaction to the blood, he’d have gotten sick hours ago, not now. He hasn’t had anything besides Gatorade since the infusion. We were also careful about testing everyone, so it’s unlikely we made a mistake.”

“So you think it’s something else?” Natalie yelled “Clear!” again, even though there was no one near them. Betsy jerked again, collapsing back on the gurney. Natalie swore. She’d never had a chance to practice with the defibrillator and wasn’t sure she was doing it correctly.

“I think so, but I don’t know what it is,” Debbie said, fretting over Wilber as she tried to fathom what Wilber was reacting to.

Natalie was preparing to apply another shock when Betsy jerked, drawing a deep, gasping breath. She started coughing, spitting up phlegmy blood before moaning piteously and collapsing back on the gurney, rolling around in pain.

“Betsy’s back among the living,” Natalie called, pressing Betsy’s damp hair out of her face and checking her reactions. “So what are you planning to do?”

“He’s still convulsing but not as badly. There’s no swelling and the heart monitor hasn’t gone off. I’m going to take a chance and wait.”

“Do what you think is best, but I’m nervous about leaving him convulsing without any assistance,” Natalie responded, holding Betsy’s wrist and counting her heart rate.

“What do you think? EpiPen or not?”

“I’ve never tried one before. I don’t know what it’ll do if he’s not having an allergic reaction.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. OK, I’ll wait. If you have a second, help me hold him down so he doesn’t hurt himself.”

“Just a minute, Betsy hasn’t recovered yet. Her heart is pounding and she’s slipped back into unconsciousness. If nothing else, slip a tongue depressor in his mouth.”

“At least she’s breathing,” Debbie said as she looped the bedspread around Wilber’s wrist, his bodyweight holding his arm in place.

“OK, her heartbeat is almost normal, and while she’s not responsive, that’s like she was before. How’s Wilber doing?” Natalie asked, finally turning to consider their other patient.

“He’s shivering slightly, so I guess he’s past whatever it was. I suspect it was a symptom we haven’t encountered yet,” Debbie concluded.

“That’s not unexpected. We’ve only seen a small handful of cases, and I’m sure there are variations in each case. An unexpected reaction in one shouldn’t be surprising.”

“All right, since you’re up, watch them both and I’ll refresh the water and grab some food for us as well as some fresh cleaning supplies. Once we clean up, I’ll give you another half-hour of sleep before you spell me.”

“Sounds like a deal.” Debbie started alternately humming and singing to their two patients while Natalie crossed over to the cabinet a safe distance away from any contaminants. She was grabbing an alcohol cleaning solution from the bottom, when she heard a horrid retching behind her. Dropping the supplies, she spun around and stood up, seeing Wilber vomiting all over himself.

“Is he—?”

“No, he’s not.” Debbie rolled him to his side so he had a clear shot over the side of the gurney. “He’s purging. He’s vomiting, pissing and crapping everything inside him. I didn’t think he had anything left to come out, but since it’s watery diarrhea, I guess there was a lot hidden behind the last solid particles.”

Natalie knelt down again, grabbing the cleaning supplies she’d dropped and the bucket and mop, then hurried back.

“What do you think brought this on? Do you think it’s related to the convulsions?”

“Damn right I do. The convulsions were the first stage. He’s trying to get rid of everything the body is rejecting.” Debbie held Wilber steady as Natalie wiped him down, cleaning his vomit off his face, neck and chest.

Having wiped Wilber relatively clean, she got to work on the gurney, cleaning it enough so Debbie could lay him back down. “It sounds like an allergic reaction to the treatment if he’s reacting so violently.”

“No, those aren’t allergy symptoms. They’re food poisoning,” Debbie answered as Natalie stepped aside and she rolled Wilber back over on his side facing the other side of the gurney. Natalie knelt beside the gurney, grabbed the bucket and started cleaning the floor. They needed a clean, dry floor so they wouldn’t slip while dealing with emergencies. A slippery floor was more dangerous than a dirty, wet diaper. “I’m guessing it’s the body’s defenses eliminating what it now sees as toxins. Before, the plagues ran rampant because the body didn’t recognize them as dangerous, and then they’d overreact, killing every cell in the body in an attempt to destroy the plague. I’m guessing the treatment has reached enough of his system it’s recognized the difference and is now reacting, eliminating as many of the treated cells as it can.”

“OK, but if his body is defending itself, does that mean the treatment didn’t work? After all, Tom said the treatment turns off the body’s self-defense mechanism, which responded by attacking the entire body, giving the donated plasma time to work.”

“I’m … I’m not sure. Given how long it’s been, I suspect the treatment had enough time to have an effect, but I’m not sure what this reaction is in response to. I’m hoping it’s the body’s attempt to clean the system by ejecting everything his body has already processed. I hope it’s not going into overdrive again.”

Having cleaned most of the mess off of the floor, Natalie kicked the bucket away, sliding it across the tile floor. They’d have to bury the towels and mop, since they couldn’t risk either cleaning or burning the infectious material. Debbie held Wilber and sang words of encouragement, holding him steady as Natalie washed him down and finished off by wiping the area with the antiseptic/bleach solution. It would make the already sensitive, dehydrated skin drier, cracked and fragile, but it was better than allowing him to lie in his own filth.

“All right, you’ve cleaned up enough. Check on Betsy to make sure she’s still OK. I can clean up the rest by myself,” Debbie told her. Wilber suffered an especially violent shiver as she settled him back on the bed, so she held him, cuddling him against her, holding him secure while also providing necessary warmth and human contact.

“Betsy’s doing OK as far as I can determine,” Natalie called out, checking Betsy over. “I’d prefer if they were awake, or at least semi-conscious. It’s hard determining how they’re coping when they don’t respond. Her eyes look a mess; bloodshot, cloudy and unfocused, but they’ve been that way for a while, so I consider it their stasis point now.”

Natalie turned and regarded Wilber while monitoring Betsy. “They seem stable for the moment, why don’t you lie down while you can. We get so few opportunities to sleep; you need your rest if we’re going to keep going for another day or two.”

“The hell with that! He may be stable for now, but he’s still shaking like a leaf and his body is trying to evacuate more even though he’s got nothing left in him. His stomach keeps contracting, so it’s clear his bowels are doing a hula-dance. If I leave now, I’ll be back up in another couple of minutes, so it’s not worth the effort pretending. Face it, we’ll continue until we collapse, and then we’ll keep going since there’s no one else to take our place.”

“Amen to that, sister!” Natalie started wiping Betsy down, hoping to calm, cool and reassure her. She knew Betsy couldn’t respond, but it didn’t mean she wouldn’t appreciate the extra effort, and these little details helped their overall survival.

________________________

Natalie was again singing to the two silent figures on either side of her, her voice echoing in the empty space. The only interruption was Debbie’s quiet snoring. They’d been trading off and on, so they’d both gotten a little sleep. Natalie planned to let her sleep until the sun rose—although they couldn’t see it in this remote area of the building—before she tried to steal a few more minutes of sleep herself. The people she was singing to gave no indication they heard anything and hadn’t for quite some time. They were both in the coma phase of the disease, where they no longer responded nor showed any sign of life. This was the phase where most people assumed they’d suffered irreparable brain damage, but Natalie knew better, having been through it herself. This was their ‘recovery period’, where their bodies shut down in order to marshal their limited resources to fight the plague. But she continued to sing, encouraging them to continue, repeating the tales of others hoping to get their brains engaged for the few moments they regained partial consciousness.

While she sang, she caressed each still body, hoping the physical contact would transmit her caring. She also worked their muscles since lying still for this long would make their recovery more difficult. But beyond that, there was little else to do. They hadn’t fouled themselves for a while, having nothing left in their bodies to flush. There was nothing for her to clean, straighten, rearrange or prepare. All there was left was to stick it out, constantly working with them, until they reco—

“Nat?” a quiet voice croaked behind her.

Natalie jumped, not expecting anyone else. Dropping Betsy’s hand, she spun around to see Wilber, glancing at her with only one eye open.

“You’re awake?” she marveled, stunned by this sign of life she’d worked for exclusively these past days.

“Yeah,” he whispered in a barely audible voice, his words hardly able to escape his cracked lips. Despite their constantly supplying liquids and rubbing oil into their skins, both patients were incredibly dehydrated.

“Thank God!” She reached for him before reconsidering it, reaching for the juice bottle instead. “Here, drink this. You need fluids.”

Wilber tried to drink, but didn’t have the strength to lift his head, nor to do much besides let the juice dribble over him. But the little that made its way into his throat felt marvelous, even though it was painful to swallow. But then, so was everything else.

“How are you doing?” Natalie asked, wanting to determine just how recovered he was.

“Hurt … all over,” he said, struggling to gather the strength to respond.

“Here, suck on this,” she offered, slipping something into his mouth. “It’s a cherry pit. We don’t have any cherries, but Tom went through the empty stores to recover the pits. They allow you to gather saliva in your mouth without working at it.”

Wilber said nothing, letting the small smooth pebble work its magic. She was right. While his mouth was dry and it was hard swallowing before, the little pit made it easier to work his mouth.

“Sing … Debbie’s first trip … to David house,” he managed to get out, finding it simpler to speak.

“I’ll be glad to, but not yet. I need to determine what shape you’re in. Seriously, how are you coping?”

“Feel … li’ shit. Hurt all over. Unimagin… able … pain. But glad … be alive,” he got out over the course of several long seconds.

“Your eyes are still cloudy and bloodshot, but you’re focusing. You still have a fever but it’s weaker than it was. Your skin feels better too. I think you’ve past the worst of it. The pockmarks of the plagues on your skin are fading.”

“Hope … so.” He managed a weak grin. “Couldn’t manage … much more.”

“Let me get Debbie, she’ll want to see this.” Natalie placed a reassuring hand on his side as she stood up.

“No,” he said, as emphatically as he could. “You’ve both … worked so hard. Let her sleep. She … deserves it.”

“All right,” she conceded, sitting down again, this time running her hand along his side to trigger his neglected nerves. They continued to whisper, mainly because Wilber wasn’t able to speak any louder and Natalie didn’t want to overwhelm him. “How much can you do?” she asked, even as she resumed humming her song, just as she had whenever her voice had weakened over the past couple few days.

He blinked once, twice, then ran his tongue around his mouth. He tried lifting his hand. He couldn’t hold it up for long because he was so weak, but even such a minor accomplishment spoke volumes about his recovery.

“Hurt like hell, but good speak ‘gain. How Betsy?” he inquired, managing longer sentences.

“Not as good as you.” Natalie glanced over her shoulder at the still, unmoving form. “She’s still unresponsive.”

“Give her … time,” he said, opening both eyes and looking at her. “It’s good to speak again. I’ve wanted … to say so much.”

“So you like the story about Debbie and Monique?” Natalie asked, mainly to give him more time to respond.

Wilber had been watching her mouth move with a peculiar fascination, as if he expected to learn some immortal truth by examining how it functioned. It took him a moment to recover and respond. “Like their fight, … whether to stay or go.”

“Yeah, it speaks to all our fears, doesn’t it?” She flexed his arm, opening and closing his hand. It was one thing to move their joints when they were unresponsive, but having them work their muscles made a big difference, as otherwise, all they did was work their joints.

He worked with her as best he could, with more range of motion than she expected.

“It fight we must battle with everyone,” he responded, showing his mind was active and his thinking clear, even if he couldn’t say much yet.

“Wilber? Is that you?” Debbie’s voice asked from their spare cot, off to the side.

“Yeah, sorry to wake … you.” He tried to glance at her but was unable to lean that far forward.

She jumped up and ran to him, grabbing him and lifting him off the bed as she hugged him. “I can sleep anytime. But I can only welcome my friend back from the dead once!” She eased him back down, her smile shinning like a beacon. “It’s so good having you back. You’re doing well.”

“Still weak,” he protested.

“That’s expected. You haven’t moved for days, your muscles are atrophied, and your energy reserves are exhausted.”

“Try this,” Natalie suggested, offering him a small container of warm orange drink. He took a couple of sips, as she cradled his head, then waved her off, barely able to make the hand motions.

“Damn, that tastes terrific,” he marveled. “Like ambrosia.”

“Life is good once you wrest it from the jaws of the plague, isn’t it”? Debbie asked, stroking his head.

“I remembered what Nat said. As terrible as it was…, I never gave up. I couldn’t refuse millions of unborn depending on us, no matter how bad it was.”

“That’s what the songs are for,” Debbie explained. “They focus your attention, force you into consciousness and motivate you to continue struggling.”

“The two of you catch up, I need to get back to Betsy. He wanted to hear you recount when you first reached David’s compound.” Natalie got up, firmly grasping Wilber’s hands before turning away to check on the still unresponsive Betsy. “I’m so glad you’re going to be OK!”

“I … never doubted I’d survive,” he insisted, looking at her with a steely resolve. “You never allowed us to give up and were willing to climb through hell to drag us back.” He fell back, too tired to do anymore. As Natalie checked on Betsy, Debbie’s voice filled the room with a vibrant enthusiasm which had been missing for some time.

 

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