Frost covered the windows of the cabin. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour, but Darcy could already hear the animals outside beginning to stir. Her breath came out in a faint cloud as she moved into the main room of the structure, grabbing her boots from beside the door as she went. She sat going over the day’s tasks in her head as she laced the worn hiking boots. They were getting low on dry staples and fuel again, which meant that she’d have to hit the town first if she wanted to get back before dark.
The cabin was quiet, the sound of Darcy’s breathing the loudest thing in the small structure. Her eyes lost focus as Darcy thought about the coming day. It was too hard to think about anything much further than the present anymore. There seemed to be a general calm that had settled over the land, providing the tiniest respite. She hadn’t seen any of the others for almost 3 weeks now and the lull in activity left a heavy pit of uneasiness in her gut. She had to figure out how one took care of animals in winter soon, which meant another trip to the library.
A soft rasp broke the stillness in the room pulling Darcy from her ruminating. Shaking off the lingering fog that filled her head, she grabbed a couple of logs from their stack and dropped them into the wood stove, stoking the dying coals before closing the door. Flames rose up, devouring the dried bark and tinder. Satisfied that the stove would continue to output enough heat for the main room, Darcy climbed the small ladder to the loft above. Checking on Jane was the final step in the morning routine before she started the day’s work.
She and Jane had been tracking an anomaly on the East Coast when the first reports of illness made their way to national news. It started small, a group of children outside of New York City dying hours after admittance. Soon though, more cases sprung up across North America, now affecting previously healthy adults. It took close to a week before hysteria began to set in as the sickness touched more of the population. Ports of access out of North America were closed in the hopes that a quarantine could be established, but by that point it was too late. The sickness has spread to mainland China and Australia. European hospitals were overwhelmed with the number of infected within days after the first confirmed case in Asia. One in three cases throughout the world resulted in death.
Things fell apart so quickly after that. The contagen tore through the world’s population. Doctors and scientists couldn’t isolate possible causes or vectors fast enough to save themselves. Cities and large metropolitan hubs ground to a stop as the workforce disappeared into the ever growing mounds of bodies waiting to be burned.
There had been pockets of the population that were initially unaffected. Groups living in extreme isolation with little to no contact with the rest of the world appeared to weather the spread of infection fairly well. Until the sickness mutated. It was unclear if it became airborne or it jumped to the animal kingdom as a carrier, but within a month of initial contact, even the most isolated communities fell victim.
Rumors that the government had gone into secure quarantined areas fizzled after a month and no sign of governing bodies emerging from the dust to bring humanity back to order.
Jane’s data had taken the two of them deep into the Appalachian mountain range, almost 30 miles from a small town close to the border of West Virginia. The epidemic had already spread throughout the country when Darcy made it into town for their bi-monthly supply run. Mr. Mayhew, who ran the town’s small general store had looked grim when Darcy entered the crowded shop. He had a tiny nine-inch TV set up on the counter, news from the local station fighting through the static. Darcy puttered around the store picking up small items that wouldn’t be contained within their standing order of supplies.
Dropping her items on the counter, she pulled her earbuds out and cocked her head.
"What’s up, Mr. M?" Her face mirroring Mr. Mayhew’s concern.
"Nothing good, Darcy girl. Nothing good. I don’t know much ‘bout medicine and science, but this flu thing looks like it’s gettin’ serious." He rang her up distractedly, his attention still focused on the garbled news report.
Darcy popped another piece of gum into her mouth as she watched the ancient screen. The signal was fairly weak, with static breaking in every few seconds, but she could make out what sounded like the news caster advising people to avoid contact with large populations, to stay at home and call emergency services at the first sign of flu-like symptoms.
Mr. Mayhew slid the brown paper bag containing her purchases across the counter, bringing Darcy’s attention back to the shop.
"Flu, huh? Is it like another bird flu outbreak?" She could remember the paranoia and mild chaos that strain had caused years ago.
"They’re not saying what kind of flu this one is, but they think it’s just affecting people. But it’s affecting a lot of people." He reached over and twisted the nob to cut power to the little set, "I hope us being so tucked away here in the hills means we’ll be safe."
Darcy hefted the bag and walked toward the door. “Yeah, me too Mr. M. Wouldn’t wanna be up here in the boondocks while civilization burns around me.” she threw back over her shoulder jokingly.
Mr. Mayhew followed her outside carrying the box of supplies. Setting it down inside the rented SUV, he leaned against the edge of the car, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket to blot his brow. Patting Darcy on the shoulder after she secured the box, he pushed off and headed back into the shop.
Darcy was climbing into the driver’s side door when he paused, “You tell Jane we missed seeing her in town and you girls be careful out there. I don’t know what this flu thing is bringin’ but it gives me the worst kinda’ feeling.”
Darcy smiled back at the man, “I sure will Mr. M. I’m sure this is just one big overblown germ scare. We’ll see you in a few weeks, I’ll drag Jane along!” With that she closed the door and started back up the mountain to their cabin. It was the last time she’d seen Mr. Mayhew.
She hadn’t thought much about the so-called epidemic back at the cabin. It had almost left her mind completely when Jane’s cough started. It had seemed innocuous at first, with the seasons changing and Jane’s propensity to overwork and under-sleep, Darcy had written it off as regular wear and tear. She’d forced Jane to take a day off from charts and tromping through the woods to let her body reset. Jane had grudgingly agreed to take it easy, resting in the loft that overlooked the main room of their cabin. It had been a quiet day, Jane reading and Darcy straightening up the explosion of papers all over the little cabin. Darcy even managed to get to sleep close to a reasonable hour for once, the stillness of the cabin only occasionally peppered with little coughs from Jane. It had been the harder, chest-rending coughing that pulled Darcy from sleep.
Climbing into the loft, she was dismayed to see Jane bent in two, coughs racking her slight frame. Jane had waved her off when she’d offered to drive back into town tomorrow and pick up cold medication.
“It’s just a cold.” Jane had assured Darcy as she tucked the woman in, adding an extra comforter to the pile. “You know how my body gets when I’m busy. It’s just punishing me for depriving it of sleep and actual nutrients. I’ll feel better in the morning when it’s had a full cycle to repair all of the damage I wreaked.”
Darcy was dubious, but what Jane said did match up with previous work marathons that had been postponed by Jane’s little “recharge cycles” as she called them. She’d gone back to bed, falling into a light sleep as she listened to Jane’s coughing subside slightly.
The following morning Darcy awoke to the sight of Jane hunched over her desk, a Hot Pocket clutched in her hand as the other scribbled away furiously. It had seemed like Jane was right, that it had just been her body’s protest that shut her down for the day. The coughing, though still persistent, had lessened in severity. Within a few days of the Jane’s initial coughing spell, they were out and trekking through the woods once more, following energy signatures and avoiding ticks.
They were on the return portion of the day’s hike when Jane fainted. Darcy rushed to her side, pulling the heavy pack off of Jane’s prone form. Her skin was on fire and she had lost all color in her face. Splashing the remaining water from her water bottle in Jane’s face, she frantically tried to rouse the woman. Ten tense minutes passed before Jane finally came around, bleary eyed and dizzy. Darcy shouldered the other pack and served as a support for Jane as the two made it back to the cabin.
That night Darcy tried everything she could think of to bring down Jane’s fever. It was too dark for her to attempt the winding and unfamiliar roads down the mountain and into town to see the local doctor. Darcy sat vigilant beside Jane throughout the night.
Darcy had refused to leave Jane’s side for the first two days, finally making the decision that she would go into town to try and bring the doctor back when Jane’s condition hadn’t improved in those two days.
The drive into town felt like an eternity as Darcy coached herself down from panic. The tenuous calm achieved by her breathing and assurances to herself that she was doing everything that she could was quickly replaced with a sick feeling of dread as she pulled into town.
The Main Street was eerily bereft of life as Darcy drove through. None of the lights were on in any of the businesses or homes. What was usually a busy area stood silent and empty. She parked the SUV in front of Mr. Mayhew’s store, hoping that he would be in and could tell her what was going on.
Finding his door locked, she followed the strip of shops down to the urgent care near the edge of town. Pushing through the entrance, she choked back the wave of vomit that rose in her throat as she entered the waiting area. The room held an overpowering stench of decay and antiseptic. Looking around, it appeared that the front desk and waiting area had been abandoned. She ventured further back past the usually locked door that stood ajar. The stench and her dread increased as she moved further into the clinic.
A light was on in one of the examination rooms and she cautiously made her way to its entrance. Rounding the doorway’s edge, Darcy found what she imagined had to be at least part of the smell. This time, she couldn’t hold back the bile that rose and was forced to hunch over a nearby trash bin as she emptied the contents of her stomach. Darcy stood as soon as the wretching stopped, looking around for something to wipe her mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to stop the shaking that had overtaken her, but it was useless. She could still see the tableau against the backs of her eyelids. Within the room a mother leaned against a father as they sat next to a gurney that presumably held their child. They were all dead, several days gone at least. It looked almost as if they’d died in their sleep, waiting for their child’s condition to improve. Turning her head away from the scene within, Darcy blindly scrabbled against the door until she felt the knob and pulled it closed.
Not willing to investigate any other rooms, she made a beeline for the clinic’s dispensory. Several years of chronic strep throat and bladder infections gave her a cursory knowledge of which pills would be antibiotics and what their general use was. After a few minutes of rummaging, she’d secured several varieties of antibiotic as well as gloves, a mask and the biggest thermometer rig she’d ever seen. She packed the backpack she brought with her and sprinted out of the clinic, leaving its acrid miasma behind.
That was a month and a half ago. Since then Darcy had given Jane every variety of antibiotics that she had brought back, but nothing had improved her condition. Darcy was thankful that Jane hadn’t worsened, but seeing her weak, frail and in pain each day was wearing on her.
Pulling a stool up next to the bed, Darcy broke the seal on a bottle of water that sat beside the nightstand. Her hand burned where she pushed Jane’s limp hair away from her forehead. Jane roused at the touch and smiled up at Darcy weakly, her eyes dim in the low light.
"Hey there boss-lady. How’d you sleep?" Darcy asked as she slid an arm under Jane’s shoulders, lifting her to an angle that she could drink from. She held the bottle gingerly against Jane’s lips as she took tiny sips of water. Setting the bottle aside, Darcy set about arranging Jane’s pillows and retucking her in, bringing the blankets up to her chin. Jane smiled wanly as Darcy turned to leave.
Darcy picked up her pack and the rifle that lay next to it. Casting a glance up to the loft once more before setting off, Darcy caught the faintest whisper of Jane’s voice.
"Thank you Darcy. I love you, be careful."