The Rotting Death - The Rotting Death

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The Rotting Death
Jim Carnicelli
5/11/2021   |   6/7/2021   |   7/12/2024   |   20,791

20,791 words
FNASR offered
Kira Carnicelli
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titank239gmail.com

The Rotting Death

by Kira Carnicelli

5/11/2021    6/7/21    20,791    1:32:24
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Patricia Barnes hunched over her keyboard in her office, dreading the message she had to type. Outside her large window were no moon or stars, just the pitch black night. She coughed hard, covering her mouth with a tissue that came away speckled with red.

She wanted nothing more than to rewind to last week, when things were still normal. This, starting now, would be the hardest time of her life. She knew it. She loved her girls so much. She loved her coworkers. But she was alone now.

Surrounding her in the spacious office was a cot, a commode, and two weeks’ worth of food and water stacked in the far corner.

Two weeks, she reminded herself. That’s all they said, was two weeks. You can do this.

The truth was, she didn’t believe them. Nobody survived. They just couldn’t bring themselves to be honest. After all, who would consent to this without some shred of hope?

But she had no choice. Her door was boarded shut.

With a deep breath, she placed her fingers over the keyboard and began to type: Dear class ...

***

Samantha and Brittany started Friday with their usual routine, but it didn’t last long. Brittany entered their small, shared bathroom to shower and dress. Samantha pulled out her phone and checked her messages while she waited. Patricia’s email was among those messages.

Samantha read it over and started to call for Brittany, stopping short when she heard the shower running. She hopped on to her class’s group chat, where everyone else was sending their questions.

One girl asked, Who’s administering these tests, anyway?  

Another: Can we go get breakfast first?

Why do they think any of us caught it? I thought it was rare.

When are they coming? Can we go down for breakfast?

Our door is still locked. Did the lock malfunction or something? Is anyone else still locked in? What’s going on here???

What happens if you have it?

Don’t most people die from it?

Mine’s locked, too. WTF?

They’re supposed to open at 5am.

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?!

No, only really extreme cases die. We should be fine as long as we’re smart about it.

I haven’t been paying attention – what is this virus anyway? What happens if you have it?  

Why are we locked in?!?!?!

Samantha ran to the door and rattled the knob. Because it was still locked, like Nina had said. Just like she always feared. She shouted a curse and tried calling her aunt. Yes, it’d mean waking her early, but this was an emergency.

She waited to hear it ring, but the call dropped after three seconds of silence. Samantha texted Ms. Patti privately: Ms. Patti, the doors aren’t open yet. What’s going on? No response. She switched back to the group chat while she waited.

Someone had copied into the chat: Premorputinexteritis.

What does that even mean?

Can anyone pronounce that?

Hey, Trish and I can’t make outbound calls. There’s like no connection here. Anyone else have this problem?

Samantha responded: Me, too. I just texted Ms. Patti.

In the chat, someone asked, Ms. Patti, what’s going on with the phones?

Please tell me this is a joke.

‘Inexteritis’ is how professionals refer to it. Normal people call it the Rotting Death.

Samantha chimed in: It’s where you rot from the inside-out. Your body attacks itself and you start to vomit and crap blood.

Eww!

It doesn’t sound real.

Someone else wrote in all caps: OF COURSE IT’S REAL! PEOPLE ARE DYING FROM THIS! LOOK IT UP.

Please don’t fight anybody. We have to stay together.

Ms. Patti, are you here? You should chime in.

It went on and on. When Brittany emerged, Samantha said, “Check your phone.”

“Why?” Her long, brown hair was wrapped in her pale blue towel. The rest of her looked fresh and vibrant in an orange sequin tank top and sleek blue jeans. She went to get her phone from her desk and turned it on, adjusting her dark rimmed glasses as she did.

“The world’s going crazy,” Sam explained. “Just hurry.”

Brittany read over the messages. “Whoa,” she gasped. “I missed a lot.” She continued reading. Sam watched her while keeping an eye on the conversation. Still no word from Ms. Patti – or their other teachers. She tried reaching out to some of them but was met with auto-responses. Those she called went to voicemail.

But the auto-responses were disturbing. Each was identical: Due to the risk of Inexteritis, I will be on leave until further notice. Your message will be responded to upon my return.

Their teachers had left them. Only Ms. Patti didn’t have an auto-response. Samantha hoped to God that meant she was still at school with them.

Brittany didn’t appear to show any emotion as she read. She’d switched away from the group chat to read the email. Now her face fell. “I really wanted my parents to visit.”

Ah, so it was the cancelled visiting hours for this weekend that bothered her. “I’m sorry, Brittany,” Sam murmured. Her phone pinged as Brittany’s message loaded to the group: Does anyone have any stats on this virus?

***

This continued throughout the morning. Patricia sat in on the chat in hidden mode. It killed her to see their panic. But she had to get ahold of herself before she’d be able to comfort them. Not to mention her work was not done yet, and her boss was watching.

She switched to her email and began her next task.

Dear parents and guardians, the email began. Due to the rising number of Inexteritis cases in the US, this school has taken measures to ensure your daughter’s safety. The school has arranged for professionals to come see to the health of each student. This will include a nasal and oral swab and the temporary cessation of all classes and events until each test has been processed.

Due to the fact that there have been no cases of a child catching Inexteritis in the US, the likelihood of your child contracting it is next to zero. This is a precaution and, yes, an inconvenience for which we apologize deeply. To ensure each student’s safety, visitation hours have been cancelled for this weekend. Each student is to stay in her room and away from potential carriers for the duration of today, Friday, April 20th, 2012. She will still be provided three meals a day, snacks, and proper attention to her physical and mental health. Students are encouraged to reach out to family, faculty, and each other with their questions and concerns.

In the unlikely event that your child has contracted Inexteritis, you will be notified immediately and the school will work with you and your child towards the next steps. We strongly encourage parents and guardians to reach out to their daughters and to staff. We are happy to provide additional information and continue supporting the nurturing and growth of your daughter in this uncertain time.

She signed the letter and sent it.

She rested her face in her hands for a second. She started another email. It wasn’t meant to be sent yet, but she might as well have it over with.

***

Helen Kowalski, Samantha’s aunt, waited for the last guest in line to turn in their hotel keys and head for their car before checking her email, where she saw two from her niece’s school. The first’s subject was Inexteritis Precautions, the second, Phone Service Down.

Helen sighed. What awful timing. She called and texted Samantha, hoping it may not be true, or that the connection was already fixed. But the operator told her Samantha’s number was out of service or disconnected. Sam was good with her belongings. She wouldn’t keep it turned off in her downtime or let the battery die.

She hoped Sam was okay. They’d worked so hard to build her trust and confidence after the way Helen’s stupid sister treated her. Last she’d talked to Sam, she seemed to be enjoying herself. Who knew – if her teachers were handling this right, she was probably okay. If you just explained things the right way, instead of scaring the shit out of kids – and teens (Samantha hated being called a kid. Helen supposed most teens did, at that age) – they handled themselves fine.

The phone at her desk rang. She answered it and dealt with the caller before returning to her own phone. This caller had booked with her hotel months in advance but was now afraid of the Premorputinexteritis virus. Helen helped him cancel his reservation while assuring him the hotel engaged in top of the line sanitary practices should he change his mind. He was quite sure he wouldn’t until the virus was one hundred percent gone. His reservation was non-refundable, and much to her surprise, he had no issue throwing away that much money. He didn’t try to bargain or bully his way out. Most guests did.  

Helen texted Samantha one more time: I know you’re not getting these yet, but I hope you’re okay. I’ll keep checking for you. I love you. The words felt inadequate – as Helen often felt throughout Samantha’s life – but she needed to convey that she wasn’t going to forget or abandon Sam. That if she had anything to do with it, that would never happen again.

***

Evening came at the school. Late that afternoon, two brawny men in what looked like police uniforms, surgeon gloves, masks, and face shields unlocked each dorm room and performed the Inexteritis test on each student. They must have somehow acquired the master key fobs Ms. Patti and other teachers used to lock the rooms at night.

When Sam joined the school that fall, she felt trapped and terrified to know she couldn’t leave her dorm at night, even though the other students found it a nice safety precaution – even if an annoying one. The officers barked their usual script about awaiting the results and maintaining proper sanitation and social distancing, so concerned about doing their duty and leaving the rooms before risking contamination that they neglected to heed any of the girls’ inquiries or consider that they need not talk to teenage girls as if they were prisoners.

Except, funny enough, that’s exactly how many of them were feeling.

“I’m starving,” Samantha groaned.

“We all are,” Brittany reminded her.

“I’m really worried about Kayla.”

Brittany was quiet before she said, “Me, too.”

Since late morning, Kayla had expressed her concerns about food. She’d begun feeling shaky. Weak. Kayla was the only student permitted to have snacks in her dorm for her blood sugar. But after nearly twenty-four hours without a proper meal, the snacks weren’t cutting it.

I’m getting really afraid, she texted the group. I haven’t gone this long without food since I was diagnosed.

They sent her all the encouragement they could, but it was empty. None of their teachers had chimed in today. It seemed that no one was left in the building except them.

***

Patricia watched in agony. Her stomach cramped. She tried to keep the blood off her face, but it sprayed a little each time she coughed, staining her lips and chin. She was too young for this. But then, even if she was forty years older and ready for retirement, no one should have to suffer the Rotting Death.

That’s what she’d decided to call it. She refused to even think of its other names. The ones that sounded medical and scientific. As if it could be easy, manageable. If that was the case, she’d be in a doctor’s office or hospital. Or at home in bed. She’d been skeptical at first, thinking it couldn’t be as bad as the news said. Surely Asia and Europe exaggerated. But no. She felt it in the churn of her stomach. Her vomit – it started so soon – was a mix of bright red and black. She was pretty sure the black was her rotting insides, which made her vomit harder.

She’d written to Scott, her boss, who gave her permission to not respond to the girls until she could do so appropriately. He would also take over the parent emails for now.

It was inhumanly cruel of her to ignore their cries for help and assurance, but she had none to give. She wasn’t allowed to tell them she was sick. And if she spoke to them, she would tell all. They deserved her honesty. But it would traumatize them. Especially now.

All her coworkers tested negative. That’s why they were home. Considering she was the only one sick despite them all being together every day, every week, she truly believed the girls were okay. She didn’t know how she managed to contract the Rotting Death, but knowing wouldn’t change anything for her now. She focused on the assurance that after this horrific process, the girls would be sent home, too. It would be bad. But they would survive. They’d bear the emotional scars, like every survivor would, but they’d carry on. And that was the main thing. Her girls had to carry on.

***

Kayla, you okay? Samantha typed in the group chat.

Kayla’s roommate, Ashley, responded: She put down her tablet and is lying in bed. I think she’s crying now ... or she was a while ago. I think she needs help!

Sam typed exactly what she was thinking – most of which would get her in trouble normally, but she didn’t care. If a teacher was willing to finally emerge to punish her language, maybe they’d finally pay attention to Kayla.

***

Patricia messaged Scott: Kayla Gonzolaz in 201 needs a doctor. She has Type 1 Diabetes and hasn’t had access to proper care all day. She’s unable to get out of bed and is shaking.

Within minutes, Scott responded: A doctor will check on her.

She asked: When will they get here?

They already should be. Can’t you see for yourself on the security tape?

Yes, and there’s no one here except us. Please send help. You know my phone access is cut off, too.

There’s no doctor with you? Well, then there should be shortly, once they’ve processed the tests.

Please send someone NOW, Scott. If they haven’t done it today, we can’t risk waiting any longer.

Who would you have me send? If what you say is true, then there’s no one to let a paramedic in until the ERT members return.

Find someone. Drive over yourself. Unboard my door so I can do it.

That’s not possible. I’m sorry.

She sat back in her chair, appalled. She can’t have medical care? Then will you at least order some dinner for the girls?

Who would risk their life to get it to them? Scott challenged.

Hell, order some pizzas. Slide the boxes under their doors. No one will get sick from just entering the building, especially if they wear gloves and a mask. Better yet, can we have someone come in and cook for them over the weekend? They can’t go three days without eating.

He replied: Again, someone would have to volunteer.

She frowned. Where was the smiling, attentive Scott? The man who cared about his students? Who was this callous man? She typed: What’s that supposed to mean? Feeding children is not optional.

Patricia, think about your coworkers. If they go back inside, get sick, and die all because you pushed them into it, how are you going to feel?

I’m already dying! We chose this job! We made a promise to our kids – to their parents! Are you really saying you’re okay with starving teenage girls?

His reply didn’t come for a few moments. Then: I understand why you’re behaving this way, Patricia. But it’s not respectful or fair. This isn’t you. And it isn’t easy for me, either. Sometimes, we have to act against one best interest in favor of another. Now, Kayla’s not going to die from one day without food. The girls will be fed. But I have to be honest with you, if this behavior continues on your part, I won’t feel comfortable letting you interact with the students. Do you understand?

Patricia gulped and suppressed either a sob or a laugh. She couldn’t tell which. She was too appalled. No, I do not understand.

He said nothing for a while. But notices began popping up on her screen – notices informing her that she was blocked from the group chat. Then from each individual student.

“No,” she said aloud. She messaged: Scott, why are you doing this?

He replied: Inexteritis affects your mind, not just your body. I’m sorry, Patricia. It really hurts me to do this. But think what their parents will say if we go about frightening them.

They’re already frightened. Neglecting them is not going to make it better. She swallowed the boiling rage in her throat enough to ask: What effects are you seeing?

When he didn’t respond for several minutes, she pressed: Are you still there?

Moments later, his reply came: Let’s not go down this path, Patricia. There’s no reason to build resentment between us.

Patricia rarely argued with her coworkers or superior, but she couldn’t forgive his attitude. Or herself for not speaking to her students. But at least Scott wasn’t boarded up somewhere.

See that the girls are fed, she demanded. And be prepared to take the fall when their parents come back angry with you for not keeping our promise. You saw the email. Not a thing of it has proved true.

After another long delay, his response came. They have to understand that you’re doing your best.

My best? I don’t understand.

Sorry Patricia. I have to go round up my kids for dinner. Let’s check in later. Then, almost immediately: I’m sorry. That was truly insensitive of me. I wasn’t thinking.

I want you to take care of our girls, not apologize, she wrote. But he was gone. Most likely had closed his laptop and shut his bedroom door. Even if he was mentally haunted by the situation, he wasn’t confined. He wasn’t as confused as Kayla or Samantha or Jessica or McKenzie. Or any of them. And he wasn’t barfing and shitting out his insides.

She knew Scott well. Not as well as she thought, apparently, but enough to unveil the meaning of his words. They have to understand that you’re doing your best. The parents, he meant. Because those emails had her name on them, and because she was the main residential advisor, it would normally be up to her, with the support of the faculty, to arrange each child’s care.

But what they didn’t know was that she was prevented from doing her job. Because she was sick. Because she was dying. Because the Authorized Health Officials from the Inexteritis Emergency Response Team had tested them and insisted that according to the Governor’s pandemic crisis plan, these were the unfortunate but necessary steps to handling this unknown virus.

But Patricia didn’t trust the Emergency Response Team. Why hadn’t she heard of them before? Why, when she asked, did they refuse to share their identification or prove they were legitimate? Normally, she wouldn’t be so skeptical, but something felt wrong. She’d dealt with medical professionals and the law her whole life – first as a child escaping an abusive homelife, then in her college studies, now as an infrequent part of her job – so she knew what was standard procedure and basic protocol for those in the field. These men clearly did not.

Including the lack of informed consent and respect for basic human rights and dignity when they brusquely told her of her disease and the inflexible, never before mentioned plan of a two week quarantine ... in her work quarters so as not to infect the rest of the building with her breathing? How was she supposed to trust them?

Never before had there been mention of survivors. Certainly no credible news of miraculous, self cleansing after two weeks. (And how did they decide on two weeks in the first place? No one told her. And she’d yet to find any articles supporting this claim.)

When she heard them sealing her in, that cemented it. No mentally functioning, law abiding service provider would do this. It was too heartless. Too cruel.

She stood up from her desk and covered her face as she let out a frustrated scream, turning immediately to gag into the commode. Which she quickly realized was not going to last her two weeks.

Shaking, panting, she sank to her knees on the floor, wrapping one arm around her torso. She looked at her cot. She should go to it. Lie down where she’d be slightly more comfortable. But it seemed so far away. She’d have to crawl a couple feet. The task seemed impossible.

***

No one slept well that night. Most of the girls were up until the early hours, unable to escape their gnawing hunger. Samantha stayed up later than the other girls. She wanted to make sure Kayla and Ashley were okay.

Kayla had gone unresponsive ... from despair and exhaustion more than anything, but Ashley kept checking that she was alive.

The next morning, Samantha took her shower first. She hadn’t taken one yesterday. It felt good to be clean and to have a few hours of sleep behind her.

“They didn’t come back with the results yesterday, like they said they would,” she noted aloud.

“No, they didn’t.” Brittany sounded dismissive.

“Do you think they’ll come today?”

“I don’t know, Sam. Probably not over the weekend. But then, it’s an emergency, so maybe? How should I know?”

“I’m just asking. You don’t have to get upset with me.”

Brittany heaved a sigh. “I’m not upset with you, I’m just nervous.”

“I know you’ve never liked that I get bothered by things. But I don’t get how you can be so chill about being locked up and ditched here.”

“We’re not ditched!” Brittany yelled, turning to glare at Sam with wide eyes.

Taken aback, Sam asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

Brittany quieted her voice, but continued just as heatedly, “This is not just about you. This is hard for all of us, and we’re doing our best to cope with it. Freaking out and blaming everyone for being out to get us isn’t helping!”

Samantha felt her jaw clench. “I have done none of that! Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“Sam! That is all I’ve seen you do this year! You think everyone is out to get you. I just can’t deal with you right now.”

Sam sighed and turned away, curling on her bed with her phone. She sent her aunt another text with a dim sliver of hope that it would go through this time. Just a simple: Auntie Helen, please help. She knew she was being pathetic by sending it, but she didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t really supposed to call her mom, and she felt no real desire to do so, but damn, did she want out of here. She scrolled to the bottom of her IM screen. Her mom’s number was there, but she’d never made or received calls from it. Now, she pressed the call button.

She waited to see if it would ring. If it did, would she feel guilty? Would her mom be mad at her? If her mom was depressed, how was Sam supposed to handle it? She’d been told by countless people – her aunt, her therapist, her school counselor, the lawyer – that she didn’t owe her mom an apology. But she wasn’t sure her mom believed that. And if that was what it took to try getting out of here, what choice did she have?

But of course, within two seconds, the call dropped. Sam went back to her IMs and pressed the voice rec. “Mom, it’s Sam. I need your help. I need you to send the police or someone to the school. I’m trapped. It’s complicated. But I need help. I can’t reach Auntie Helen.”

Brittany had settled on her bed with her back to Sam. Now she spoke without turning. “Your mom’s still alive?”

“Yeah.”

“How come you never mentioned her before?”

Sam chuckled inside. Her roommate sounded genuinely curious. “Because she’s crazy.”

Now Brittany turned around. “What do you mean?”

Sam shrugged. “The courts said she was neglectful. She’d disappear all the time. I went to a public school before coming here, and I’d miss a lot of the field trips or the teachers would have to cover for me because she’d just ... forget about the permission slips. Or something. No matter how many times I reminded her.”

“Oh ...” She was silent. “I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked.”

“I just ... thought you would have told me, if you wanted me to know.”

“When you didn’t seem interested, I just thought you wouldn’t get it.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t believe you?” When Sam didn’t respond, she said, “Of course I’d believe you! You’re my friend.”

“I annoy you,” she countered.

Brittany contemplated that. “Is that why you have such a hard time trusting adults?”

“Yeah. Like, until two years ago, I didn’t even know you were supposed to trust them.”

“That’s really sad.” And it showed in her eyes that she meant it. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. My aunt’s the best. She doesn’t shout or hit. She buys food. She cooks.”

“That’s what a parent is supposed to do.”

“Your parents are like that, too?”

Brittany scoffed. “Oh, yeah! They’d never hit me. And my dad makes, like the best eggs and pancakes for breakfast. You should try them sometime.”

“That would be great! God, I’m so hungry!”

“Me, too.”

“Brittany,” she said, serious again. “Do you honestly believe we’re not abandoned? That there’s a reason for this?”

“Yeah.” She was mostly convincing. “I’m sure our parents are freaking out that they can’t talk to us, but ... it’ll be over with soon and we’ll figure out why this is happening. That’s just how it works.”

“Are you afraid of the virus at all?”

“Not really. I mean, how could we have caught it? It’s super rare, anyway. Plus, the news exaggerates things. I believe that one guy who said it’s only, like, a 10% fatality rate. It’s scary, but ... they’re just testing us to make sure.”

***

Kayla appeared to go into a deep sleep from which she did not awake. Ashley tried to give her water from the sink in a little plastic cup, but she didn’t wake up to drink it. She wasn’t dead, but she was very cold.

***

Monday morning, the officers were back. Ashley and Kayla’s room was the first they visited. They took note of the unconscious girl and addressed Ashley.

“What’s your full name?” asked the one in the lead. Only his eyes showed under the mask. They were narrowed and suspicious. He spoke in a low growl, as if his job was to intimidate and he never learned gentleness. She answered and he said, “Your Inexteritis swabs both came back negative. Congratulations. You can pack your belongings and use the office phone on the first floor to contact your parents and arrange your transportation home.”

“Home?” It took Ashley by surprise. She shook her head and glanced at Kayla. “What about Kayla?”

“She’ll be taken care of.”

“Look,” she pressed. “She needs a hospital now. I don’t know why nobody checked on us or called 911 or anything, but can’t you do something now? She can’t wait.”

The second officer had remained outside the room. Now the first backed into the hall and said, “We’ll get help for her, but we have to keep it moving right now.”

Leaving the door open this time, they both left.

Ashley went to the bed to lean over Kayla, laying a hand on her arm. “I’m gonna get you help, okay? You’re gonna be okay.” She ran down to the first floor, where another guard waited by the main office. He asked for her phone number and, instead of letting her call home, made the call for her.

Oh, god, my dad’s gonna freak, if he hasn't already, she thought. And what is this about being sent home?

Gradually, her fellow classmates started to join her. The officer conducted the same routine with each of them, making their phone calls home and informing them after of how they would get there. McKenzie’s folks would be here in forty-five minutes. Ashley’s dad would try to get her a bus ticket for the day-long drive to her home state, as he was on a business trip until Thursday.

When the officer told Brenda’s mom that anyone who couldn’t get home today could remain here for the rest of the week and receive care and supervision, the girls looked at each other with fright. If that care looked anything like the last three days, they wanted no part of it.

“Can I get a hotel?” Brenda shouted, hoping her mom would hear her on the other end.

The officer spared a harsh glance at her.

“Yeah, they’re treating us like prisoners!” Ashley yelled.

“It’s been a rough few days,” the officer explained to Brenda’s mom, keeping his voice friendly and even. He smiled under his mask, knowing she’d hear it in his voice. “They’re more than welcome to get a hotel room nearby. I’d gladly escort them. It’s just the school doesn’t cover that expense.”

“I’m starving, Mom!”

Her classmates chimed in with a chorus of, “Yeah! Me, too!” and the like.

The officer held up a hand to quiet them. “What’s that, ma’am? You’ll cover it? You’re sure? Okay, let me get back to you when everybody’s down and we know who’s gonna be here and all that stuff. Okay? Thank you. Bye-bye.”

***

They could hear the footsteps in the hall. They heard the pounding on each door. Samantha and Brittany set down their phones and listened, as did all the students. They heard as the officers got closer to them. They knew when they should be next. The anticipation that built in them was overwhelming. Samantha was so anxious, she left for a moment to go pee.

They heard when the voices were one door over, knowing they would be next. The officer spoke loudly enough they could hear him barking the good news to Brenda and Kelly.

And they heard those same footsteps pass right by them to the final two doors on the left. They felt everything in them freeze.

“Wait,” Samantha stuttered. “Wait!” She pounded against it. “What about us? We’re still in here!” she screamed. “Hey!”

Brittany stepped back. Her instinct was to tell Sam to stop. That she’d done enough. The officers had to have heard her, and there must be a good reason they’d overlooked them.

But she didn’t tell her to stop. Instead, she withdrew. She hunched her shoulders, ducked her head, and clenched her hands together. She paced slowly back and forth while Sam continued to cry for help.

Finally, a booming voice ordered them to step away from the door, which Sam obeyed. There was a soft beep and the sound of the latch unclicking as they used the master key fob to unlock it. The two officers stepped in. “Samantha Kowalski and Brittany McClean?” The one in front stepped forward once more. “Brittany, I’m sorry to say that your Inexteritis test came back positive. Samantha, due to your close contact with Brittany, the likelihood that you’ve contracted the virus is almost one hundred percent.”

Brittany’s mouth dropped open. Despair crumpled her features. Shock washed over her.

“What?” Samantha gasped.

“Now, the good news is that some studies have shown that after a two week quarantine, the body heals itself and most people come away from it just fine. So for the next two weeks, you’re both to remain in this room until your quarantine is up. Someone will be by to deliver fresh food and water to you shortly.”

He began to leave, but Samantha ran for the exit. She just managed to slip by him when the second officer grabbed her and forced her back in. Brittany watched, too shocked to react.

Samantha screamed, “HELP!”

The officer shoved her back hard enough that she landed on her butt on the floor. They slammed the door and held the fob to the bolt, waiting for the soft beep and flash of light. Sam leapt up again and tried to open it before it could lock, but she was too late. She let out an angry scream and started punching, kicking, and throwing her weight against it.

Brittany knew it would do no good but didn’t try to stop her. All she could think was, How did I catch it?

***

Several things happened at once. Samantha’s voice carried to the first floor. And to the third. It barely reached Patricia’s ears, but it reached them. She lay on her cot, holding her stomach. Her throat was burned and raw. Every bit of her felt that way. Tears came to her eyes. The girls had been singing the last two nights. In their despair, they tried to come together, and their singing and laughter could be heard ... probably throughout the building, were there anyone else to hear. And now, this ... she so hoped it was impossible, but those screams told her it wasn’t. That at least one of them was destined to the same fate as her. She covered her face with her hand and wept.

The girls downstairs heard Samantha, too. Nearly all of them knew she, Brittany, and Kayla were the only ones not with them, and they started running to her. They forgot about the police officers until the second one came down the stairs with a hand out to stop them and the other on the gun at his hip.

“Now stop right there, everyone,” he commanded. “Everything’s all right. She’s gonna be fine. She’s just upset, like you all are.”

“Where is she?” Ashley screamed at him. “And where’s the fucking ambulance for Kayla?”

Several of the girls stood firm behind her. McKenzie put her hands on Ashley’s shoulders, wanting to sooth her but not sure how.

Lynn whispered, “It’s going to be okay, Ashley,” just because she wanted to help. And because she was afraid. She always thought police were supposed to protect you, but seeing the hand on his gun, and the isolation they’d faced, and the fact that at least one of them might be dead, she didn’t exactly believe her own words. She just didn’t want Ashley to get shot.

Upstairs, the head officer spoke into his radio to the third one. “Take the girls to the Dream Inn down the road. Any of them that aren’t leaving today, put them up for the night. Four to a room if they’ll let you. Anyone who is leaving today we just gotta inform the parents to pick them up there. They can’t stay in this environment.”

“I’m on it.”

***

Samantha and Brittany sat curled on Brittany’s bed, close together. Brittany cried on and off. “I need to talk to my parents,” she kept saying. She and Samantha continued messaging their families, even though they knew it was futile.

Samantha texted her aunt one more time: Help!

When that wouldn’t send, she messaged her mom. It killed her to do so. She swore she’d never do it – that she’d never have to, like Auntie Helen and everyone else promised. But here she was. Just in that one in a million chance her mom was the one person on earth who’d get the message.

It was the same message she’d sent her aunt. Just a plea for help. To the woman who forgot about her, left her behind, left her alone at night. But fuck it. Her teachers, the police, the ones she was supposed to trust, did the exact same thing. And even though Auntie Helen probably had no clue what was going on – or maybe knew and was scared like Sam – through no fault of her own, she was doing the same thing she swore to protect Sam from. Sam’s supplications to these people were no different from those to her mom.

To make it all worse, she and Brittany had both been kicked out of their group chat. Sure, maybe the connection was just that bad now. Maybe it was a coincidence. But it seemed too unlikely. Someone was monitoring them, she thought. Only a teacher or the principal could control the chat like that. So who was it? And where were they? And just ... what were they thinking and planning? How could they do this?

“They say you can survive seven days without food,” Sam said later that night. “As long as you have water.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Brittany asked.

“The Ring.”

“That old horror movie?”

“Yeah.”

“You know it’s just a movie, right? Not scientific?”

“Well, not everything about a horror movie can be wrong.”

Brittany wanted to roll her eyes but didn’t have the energy.

Sam continued, “I just want to know what’s happening. And what’s going to happen. I think they’re going to leave us to die –”

“Don’t say that.”

“– and I want to know what it’s going to feel like.”

“Stop, Sam. We can’t think like that. We can’t lose hope. No matter what happens, it’s going to be that much harder if we lose hope.”

“But we can’t ignore reality. We can’t give up and be passive about this.”

“We won’t. But we have to conserve our energy. We’ll drink from the sink as much as we can.” She pondered something. Her dark eyes looked that much darker and rounder under her glasses. She’d acquired shadows around her eyes, as had Sam and – if they could have seen each other – their classmates. “Maybe we can escape out the window. We’ll send help back for Kayla, too.”

Samantha perked up. “This is the first time I’ve heard you go against an adult.” She smiled.

Brittany smirked. “I’m not stupid, Sam. You can’t just respect authority. It has to be right. Worth it. This is neither.”

“Heh. You got that right.”

***

The next thing they heard were voices outside. The voices of their classmates. Calling their names. They went to peer out the window. One of the girls, Brenda, stood below them.

“We’re coming back for you!” she shouted, her voice muffled by the glass barrier and barely audible. But they heard her. The words were no sooner out of her mouth when one of the officers approached and grabbed her arm, roughly dragging her away.

They could hear her snap, “Let go of me, fat Hitler!” before disappearing from view. Samantha and Brittany heard thin laughter and cheering. Then nothing.

Sam fiddled with the window. She hadn’t tried to open it before, but she managed, letting in fresh, spring air. She poked her head out and called, “Hello?” But no one answered. She feared no one would. She turned to Brittany. “They left us. We’re all alone here.”

Brittany peered around the room. “Let’s find a way to climb down.”

“Now you’re finally worried enough?”

“Of course, Sam. I’m terrified. Just help me find something. If we jump, we’ll be hurt. If we can tie our sheets to something and climb down, we’ll be okay.”

While she looked, Sam climbed to straddle the sill with one hip.

“Sam, don’t jump!”

“I’m not! I’m trying to see if we’ll even fit!”

“We have to! They have to make it wide enough in case of fire hazards.”

“Then I think I’ll take my chance with dropping.” She was bluffing. Mostly. But so what? She twisted herself around, sticking her feet out as far as they would go and tried to shimmy her way down. If it worked, she might just let herself drop. It would be a long fall, and it would hurt – she’d land in the shrubs underneath, which would lead to all sorts of injuries – but it would be worth it if she could escape. She’d crawl if she had to. It beat spending another minute locked up.

She made it as far as her hips, but that’s where the problem came in. They stuck. The window was too narrow. As if whoever built this school back in the day didn’t want anyone jumping out. Fire hazards be damned. Prisoners be damned. She could understand it somewhat, considering it used to be a place for “troubled” students, but still. What a cruel design. It seemed worse in some ways than locking the doors at night. Maybe if they lost weight, they could force themselves through, but they were so thin to begin with. They’d have to be significantly more malnourished. And even then, their bones wouldn’t shrink, and there was nothing they could do about that.

She climbed back in, trembling with rage. Brittany had stopped to watch. Sam watched the horror and despair spread across her face. The same emotions rising in herself, to a terrifying level.

Letting the fear encompass her, Sam ran for the door, throwing herself against it. Punching it. Shouting, knowing full well that no one would hear them except any officers that remained. And they didn’t care. They wouldn’t help.

Something finally snapped in Brittany, and she allowed herself to scream. No words, no message, no purpose except to release all the rage and horror consuming her and maintain a shred of her sanity.

They did this until they drained themselves. They didn’t know how long they lasted. They were left with nothing but time and uncertainty. The time passed. The day seeped away into night. They sat on one bed, holding each other.

“They never brought any food,” Samantha said.

“Nope.”

“They’re not coming back.”

“I don’t think they are.” Oddly enough, Brittany had stopped feeling hungry. She didn’t recall when it started. But she did feel weak and numb. She would swear she felt her body eating away at itself and devoting all it had to keeping her alive.

Admittedly, now that she’d received her diagnosis, she wondered how much of that discomfort was merely hunger and how much was the virus. And if that was the case, when would the bleeding start?

***

At Dream Inn, eight girls remained for the night. The rest were picked up by their parents or caught a bus or taxi home. Another officer had come to guard them for the night. He said it was to abide by a legal requirement that they have adequate supervision while out of their parents’ care, but because they’d asked to go see their friends and he’d denied them – that his work partner stopped them with physical force – on the basis it wouldn’t be healthy, they didn’t believe him. He was there to hinder them, not protect them.

Those who were picked up didn’t notice as the intensity of their concern shifted. McKenzie, for instance, was so relieved to be in the car with her mom that after conveying her concerns and complaints, she relaxed. Not completely, but more so once she knew her mom would handle the rest. She’d contact the principal and the other parents. Her classmates would be okay. After all, McKenzie was safe. She was out of school, unsure when she could return (not that she wanted to anymore) or what her future held, but she was with her family, eating fresh food, and never to be locked away again.

***

Ashley caught a bus home the following day. She was haunted. She barely spoke to anyone, no matter how much her younger siblings and the housekeeper tried to persuade her.

She called Frederick Gonzolaz, Kayla’s dad. One great part about being roommates was they both lived with their dads. Kayla’s mom died when she was too young to remember; Ashley’s parents were divorced, and her dad was the only one who could take care of her. It didn’t define them anymore, really, but it was neat that they understood each other’s home lives differently than kids with normal families. She just needed to know that Kayla was okay.

“Mr. Gonzolaz, this is Ashley, Kayla’s friend. I was wondering how she’s doing. Can I talk to her?”

The shock was plain in his voice. “Ashley? What do you mean, ‘Is Kayla okay’? I thought you were all in school waiting for your Inexteritus tests.”

Ashley’s mouth dropped open. “The police came to give us our results yesterday. He said he would get her help. Oh, god!” She buried her face in one hand as her throat clenched with tears.

He kept his voice calm and measured. “Okay, tell me exactly what happened. Where are you calling from, Ashley?”

“From my home. I’m really sorry to have to tell you this.” She gave him the spiel of what happened since Friday, telling him about the police – or maybe they were actually doctors? – who somehow had access to the key fobs, and how their teachers abandoned them.

She told him, through her tears, of Kayla’s decline. “I really thought they would help her. We have to do something, Mr. G.”

She heard him breathe hard. “I don’t understand this.” But he didn’t sound angry with her. He sounded distraught. “I was told everything was normal. That you were doing your classes and just not allowing visitors. And that the phone lines are down. You’re telling me you were locked up and left alone?”

“Yes! And Kayla’s not the only one who didn’t get out. Two more girls, Brittany and Samantha, were still in their room when we left. I don’t know what’s going on. No one would talk to us. But you need to do something.”

“I will, I promise you.”

***

When the call was over, Frederick dropped his phone, doubled over in his recliner, and wept. He so badly wanted this to be a practical joke. But he’d met Ashley. She was honest; one of Kayla’s best friends. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t deceive him, but after getting to know her throughout the year, he saw no reason to doubt her. Not only that, he heard the pain in her voice.

And, though he passed it off as nerves, he felt unsettled all weekend. Not overprotectiveness – he recognized that well – but a deep dread in the core of his gut he’d never felt before.

Later that night, Frederick drove to the school. He called the other parents, one of which repeated Ashely’s story. That all seemed under control until her child came home shaken and told her everything. The other – an aunt – relayed the same news from the school that Frederick considered the “old story.”

“I do think the no-visitors part is a bit extreme,” Helen told him. “Especially if they’re not fixing their phones. Something like this could make Samantha want to quit, unless they’re handling it pretty damn well.”

“Have you talked with the other parents lately, Helen?” he asked.

“Mm-mm, why do you ask?”

He took a deep breath and explained. When he finished, Helen was silent on the other end. Then she stuttered before saying, “You mean, all the kids went home except ours? And nobody told us?”

“Exactly. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to call them yourself. Get one of the girls to give you her story.” He gave her a second to absorb that. “I’m sorry to be the one to dump all this on you. I needed some proof that this wasn’t just some made up story, but ... I don’t think it is. I’m driving over there myself now. Tonight. I’m hoping it’s some misunderstanding –”

Helen cut him off with a curse. “You’re a lawyer, right, Frederick?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“If – and I’m hoping that’s a big ‘if’, but – if this is true, what can we do?”

“We get ourselves the best representation we can and take those fuckers to court. But like you said, I’m hoping to God I’m wrong.”

Now, he drove into the night. He was insanely grateful that Kayla had enough homesickness to study only ninety minutes from him. He’d wanted her to go as far as she could, maybe see the east coast or another country altogether. The stuff he dreamed about as a boy and couldn’t do until adulthood.

But Kayla refused to budge, and now he was relieved. He’d have taken a flight anywhere on earth, but the drive was much easier.  

When he reached the end of the road, the building, though only three stories, loomed tall and dark above him. The vast parking lot was empty. Completely empty except for him. What the hell? He parked and stepped outside.

He walked to the front door, rattled the knob, and rang the bell. He heard the sound echo inside.

***

Brittany’s stomach cramps got worse as the day led on. She’d seen the first signs of the virus that evening, when blood appeared in the toilet. She began to feel chilly. Her body ached like she had the flu. She gathered her blankets and pillow and slept on the bathroom floor.

Samantha kept an eye on her. They kept the bathroom door open. She told Brittany not to worry if she needed to be sick while Sam was in the shower or anything. To just come in. It was gross, but Sam didn’t want her to suffer worse.

She heard the doorbell ring downstairs and cried, “Hey, Brittany! Someone’s here!” rushing to the open window. “We’re up here!” she shouted. “Help us!” She kept shouting until the visitor came around to them. She couldn’t see him well in the dark. She just hoped he was a good guy.

“I’m Kayla Gonzolaz’s father,” he called to her. “Is there a teacher here?”

“Oh my god, thank God! No, nobody’s here except us and Kayla. You have to get us out of here.”

“Can you come downstairs?” he asked.

“No, we’re locked in. Our doors are locked from the outside and we can’t undo them.”

“I’m calling for help,” he said, taking his phone from his pocket. He dialed 911. He gave the dispatch the school’s address and explained the situation.

The dispatcher made a noncommittal sound. Frederick could hear the clack of typing before she responded, “Sir, the area you’re calling from is an Inexteritis Red Zone. You can’t be there, I’m afraid.”

“A red zone? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That’s a quarantine zone for folks with Inexterisis, sir. You can’t be there unless you’re authorized.”

“Then I need somebody who is authorized. These children need immediate medical attention.”

“You have to leave the area, sir. I’m sorry, but you can’t be there.”

“Have you listened to a word I said? These kids are trapped. My daughter has diabetes that’s gone untreated for five days. Send an ambulance, and I’ll go.”

Silence, clacking. Then, “All right, sir, I’m sending someone your way.”

“Thank you.”

“They should be to you in about ten minutes or so. I’m going to go ahead and end the call. You sit tight, okay?”

“Wait, shouldn’t you stay on the line with me until they arrive?”

“I have to keep the line open, sir.”

“But they are coming?” He repeated the address and asked again. The dispatcher assured him the police were close and ended the call.

Samantha called down, “What’s happening?”

Frederick hesitated before replying, “They’re sending someone.” That deep sense of dread hadn’t faded yet. If anything, it was worse. But he couldn’t tell her that. “I won’t leave until you’re all safe, I promise.”

“Thank you! Thank you! Will you call my aunt, please?”

“Sure thing. What’s your name, hon?”

“Samantha Kowalski.”

“You’re Helen’s niece?”

“Yes! You know her?”

He began entering Helen’s name in his phone. “Yeah, I called her before I came over. One of your classmates said you were in trouble. I'll let your aunt know I’m with you.”

Helen’s phone rang three times before she answered it, her voice thick with sleep. Poor woman. It was after midnight.

“Helen, it’s Frederick again. I’m sorry to wake you but I’m at the school with Samantha right now.”

He heard a rustling sound. Probably Helen sitting up in bed. “You’re with Sam? Can I talk to her?”

“Not yet, she’s on the second floor. I’m outside on the ground. We’re shouting through an open window. So, uh, the bad news is the rumors are true. I’ve called for help, and they say it’s on the way. I was wondering –”

“Oh my god.” Helen sighed, cutting him off. “Is she okay?”

He angled the phone away from his mouth and called up, “Samantha, you aunt asks if you’re okay.”

“We’re dying up here, Auntie Helen!”

He brought the phone back. “You hear her?”

“Yes. Shit.” He heard her grit her teeth together. “We are gonna ream their motherfucking asses.”

“Yes ma’am, we are. Listen, Helen –”

The headlights hit him then. He saw the blinking lights of the cop car. Samantha started shouting and waving in desperate delight. Brittany could be seen finally poking her head out, her blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She covered her mouth upon seeing the police car and hugged Sam. They had hope again. Escape was so near.

“Looks like the cops are here,” he said. “I can put you on speaker phone so you can talk with Samantha when she’s down here. Or I don’t know how close you are to the school if you want to drive over.”

“Sir?” Two cops emerged from the car. They each wore surgeon’s masks and gloves and a face shield. “You can’t be here. This is an authorized Inexteritis Red Zone.”

Unease quivered in his stomach. He put Helen on speaker phone. If she’d responded, he didn’t hear, but he hoped she hadn’t hung up. “You still there, Helen?”

“Yes.” Her voice came through loud on the speaker. She sounded impatient. “Did you hear me?”

“No, I’m sorry. Hang on with me, will you?”

The cop repeated, “I need you to leave immediately, sir. Otherwise it’s a misdemeanor.”

Frederick introduced himself and explained the situation, hoping they would be more receptive than the dispatcher.

The officer reached out an arm, beckoning him away. “I know you’re worried about your daughter, sir. But I can assure you she’s being taken care of. Now, I need you to come away from the area. Will you do that for me, please?”

“I can do that once I know the children are safe.”

“The children are safe, I promise you.”

Helen’s voice came through, “What’s going on there, Frederick?”

“That’s not what they tell me or what I see. You see this empty lot? Where are the staff I paid to tend to their well being? I need them taken to a hospital. As her father, I have that right.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Being her father doesn’t give you special privilege over the system. For anyone who has contracted Inexteritis, this premises is deemed a safe place for quarantine.”

“Helen, do you hear this?” he asked.

“Yes, I hear. But I don’t understand. Our girls don’t even have their results yet, or we would have been told, wouldn’t we?”

The officer spoke. “That’s something you want to take up with the school, ma’am. We’re just law enforcement.”

“Are you trying to tell me my niece has the virus, and no one told me?”

“Again ma’am, you’d have to take that up with the school or your niece’s doctor. We’re just here because we had a complaint of someone trespassing on the premises.”

Samantha called, “Guys?”

“I asked for an ambulance for the trapped children. Where is their help?”

“No, sir, there’s been a misunderstanding. Your kids are taken care of. We’re here for your protection. The longer you’re here, the higher your risk of contracting the virus, especially with no protective gear.”  

Helen asked, “You have to give us proof that what you’re doing is lawful. Otherwise it’s just assault. Right, Frederick?”

“It’s true.” He stared at the officers. “You must know how many laws you’re breaking. Who’s acting in loco parentis? If I can’t see my daughter, what is your excuse? There is no information to suggest she’s too ill to be seen or under the care of a doctor I approved of. I’m sure you officers are just trying to do your jobs, but this behavior is unethical. If I file a suit against your department, as it stands now, you know what the consequences will be. If you do the right thing, you’ll be heroes.”

“All right.” The officer shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I have to place you under arrest for threatening us.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wait a minute.” The second cop spoke up for the first time, addressing Frederick. “Just know that because you’ve been exposed to the virus, we’ll have to isolate you. Rather than risk spreading it, you can choose to quarantine here. Someone will come test you and it’ll be part of the process. It’s up to you. Just thought it'd be a little nicer and safer than sitting in jail.”

Helen cut in. “No, no, you can’t do that. Who’s your supervisor? I want to speak to them.”

They ignored her. The first cop raised an eyebrow at Frederick. “It’s true, you could do that. We’d just need an officer on the case to set you up.”

“You can’t get in?”

He shook his head again. “We’re not Emergency Response. Do you want to start your quarantine in this location?”

“I want my lawyer before I make any decisions.”

“We have to take you somewhere for processing before we can get you your lawyer, sir. Do you want that to be here, or the station?”

His heart ached. He wanted nothing more than to leave here with Kayla. He hadn’t even gotten to see her. But this was wrong. This was dangerously, insanely wrong and unorthodox. He didn’t come to America and work as hard as he did to be treated like this. He didn’t trust these cops. And he was alone with them – for all intents and purposes.

“Kayla’s dad?” Samantha called down. “Are we going home?”

The first officer answered. “It’s all right, little girl. You’re going home soon. Just got to wait a little longer.”

“How much longer?”

“Not long.” His voice went flat at the end. He was lying, and he knew it. Frederick could hear it.

He looked the officer in the eyes. “How do you sleep at night?”

“Hey, I’m still here, guys,” Helen said. “Can someone explain to me what’s going on and when I can see my niece?”

“Ma’am, how do you know this man on the phone?”

She sounded ready to snap. “Our children both go to this school. They’ve been locked in without anyone informing us. He’s there making sure they’re okay. Which it sounds like they’re not.”

“Okay.” The officer nodded and took a notepad and pen from his shirt pocket. “Can I get your name and number so I can talk to you in private about this? We actually need him to end the call with you because we’re taking him in.” He looked at Frederick again. “Sir, did you want to go to the station or inside the school?”

Frederick choked over his words. He hoped it wasn’t too noticeable. “The station. I want this to be lawful.”

“All right then. Ma’am, I’m ready to take your information, then I need you to get off the phone.”

“Nah-uh, I’m not comfortable with that. I’ll just hang up, if that’s all right with you, Frederick.”

No, he thought. Do not leave me alone with these people. If he thought they were abiding by the law, he still wouldn’t like being arrested, but he’d go with the process. Now, although he seemed to have no choice, his gut told him it was dangerous. With great reluctance, he said, “Hang up, Helen. This isn’t over.”

The call disconnected. He hoped she understood him. Really understood him. This was trouble. Unless they actually got to the police station, processed him, and gave him an explanation for all of this, he wouldn’t trust them. He wouldn’t count on lawfulness.

He very much considered running to his car. Maybe beating one of the officers. Taking one hostage to get the girls free.

But those were primal urges. He didn’t have the skill to do any of those things. He’d only get himself hurt and in more trouble. Corrupt or not, they had the power now, not him. And that terrified him because ... He avoided thinking about it too hard, but it was there in his mind. That meant they were also in charge of Kayla. And because of their neglect – the neglect from all those responsible for her – she may very well be dead by now.

This could be the biggest mistake of his life. But hopefully his fears were nothing more than those of a terrified parent.

He surrendered to his arrest and, once handcuffed and at least read his rights, slid in the back of the police car with them. They’d also put a doctor’s mask over his mouth and nose. He would have liked to adjust the straps around his ears, but with his hands behind his back, he was immobilized.

Samantha’s reaction and that of her friend broke his heart. For as long as he lived, unless he could get justice for this, he’d never forgive himself or the officers. When Samantha saw him getting cuffed and masked, she began to sob. She pleaded with him and the officers. He wanted nothing more than to hit them. To correct the injustice, of course, but also to just make them hurt. To pour all his rage into them and make them pay in every way possible for what they’d done to these children. He could only apologize to her and assure her that this wasn’t the end. He wouldn’t leave them there.

***

On the drive to the station, the officers spoke quietly amongst themselves. The one in the passenger’s side thought over the new regulations they were hit with last week. They all related to the Rotting Death. Health officials were calling it the second bubonic plague. They said unless everyone did their part to contain it, it could finally be the disease that wiped out humanity.

Although he wouldn’t admit it, he was scared. He was young. New to the force. Recently married to an incredible woman in the same department. And here he was, in an enclosed space with a man who’d spent God knew how long in an authorized red zone, talking with an infected person through an open window. They may as well have been french kissing for all the particles they shared. And all that time he spent arguing with them, breathing at them with no protection ...

He and his partner were probably already infected by now. Sure, they wore their masks and gloves, but how much good did they really do? You saw the kind of suits real virologists wore, and these were nothing in comparison. The real stuff kept you fully enclosed – all of you. These masks were just for show. They weren’t keeping them safe.

And now they were supposed to take him to the station, where he’d risk so many more lives. It wasn’t fair.

He tried conveying this to his partner, who drove. “We should have just let him in,” he said. “Let the guy see his daughter. Let them quarantine together. What harm could that do?”

His partner, who was twenty years his senior, both in age and as a cop, spoke low and stern. “That would be cruel, man. You know nobody’s coming out of these red zones alive. No one recovers from the Rotting Death.”

“Yeah, and we’re taking a dying, infected man to see our team.”

A sigh. “We don’t have much choice. It’s the law.” He glanced sideways. “What do you suggest we do?”

“Look.” The way the young cop’s shoulders rose and sank with his breath was the only indication of his distress. “He’s gonna be in contact with my wife. You know she’s working tonight. I told her to try for paid leave, but she won’t do it yet. Most times I won’t press it too much, but we’ve got as good as a confirmed case right behind us. Let him go back, all right?”

The older cop scoffed and shook his head, but he slowed and pulled over.

“What’s going on, guys? Everything okay?” Frederick asked.

“It’s fine,” the first said. Then, turning to the other, he whispered, “You know the more time we spend back there, and here in this car, the greater our risk. Sue is safe behind the plexiglass. She’s got her protective gear because it does actually make a difference.”

The young cop opened his door. “I need some air.” He slammed it shut and opened the back, reaching in to pull Frederick out.

“What’s going on?” Frederick asked, keeping his voice low despite the panic in it as the young cop shoved him off the road, away from the car. He turned to face the cop once he could twist out of his grip. “What are you doing?”

He undid one of Frederick’s cuffs, brought it around to relock so his wrists were in front of him, and tore the mic from his own shirt. He tossed it on the ground and stomped on it.

“Officer –” His voice choked with fear. “Is everything okay?”

“Just getting some air,” he replied, voice too calm. “Take it easy.”

Frederick’s eyes widened even more as his uneasiness grew, but he said nothing. Unthinking, he raised a cuffed hand to toy with the strap of his mask.

The officer drew his gun and shot Frederick in the forehead. Frederick landed on his back in the grass, the remainder of his head in a puddle of its own gore.

The older cop scrambled from the car. “What the fuck?” he cried.

“He – he came at me!” There was just enough tremble in his voice to make him sound shocked. His face shield had splatters of blood on it. He bent over and undid the strap Frederick had reached for, letting the mask dangle off his face from one ear. “He removed his mask, he was reaching for my face a – as if to bite me. He was infected and he wanted to infect me, too.” He made as if to touch his face before remembering the coverings he wore. “I had no choice. He grabbed for me.”

His partner radioed for an ambulance, thinking but not saying: Your wife is safe now.

The young cop’s statement showed that he’d been attacked by a man trespassing on an Inexteritis Red Zone. The man had been at the zone for an indeterminable amount of time, talking with a confirmed infected patient through an open window, causing a definitive risk of infection. Upon his arrest, he broke out of the car and tried to attack the officer head on, forcing the officer to fire a defensive shot at close range.

It was determined the officer was in the right and that due to his protective gear, he was at very low risk of contracting the virus. Each officer was given the Inexteritis swabs and sent home. The next day, they were determined to be clean and able to go on with their work and their lives.

***

Samantha and Brittany didn’t retain much hope when Frederick didn’t come back. He’d been arrested. The cops were against them. Frederick wasn’t coming back, and the police wouldn’t help them. They were going to let them die.

Brittany started vomiting. Samantha would hear her get sick and feel her own stomach twinge. She hated that sound. She’d lean her head out the window and breathe deeply, trying to settle her nausea, knowing if she had to barf, too, at least she had somewhere for it to go.

Brittany hardly ever got off the bathroom floor except to clear room for Samantha. Sam spent so much time just sitting or lying in bed. They’d had no food for a week. She didn’t want to drink water anymore. She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to prolong her misery either. Brittany still drank from the sink, for which Sam was glad because she didn’t want Brittany to die. And she really, really didn’t want to be here alone. Each night, when it got dark, she and Brittany would talk to each other very deliberately for fear they would wake the next morning to find the other dead.

The scary part was, Samantha didn’t even feel bored anymore. She’d had plenty of time to be bored during the week. Now, she was too exhausted. She just wanted some food and human contact. When she wasn’t sleeping, she lay awake thinking about her life, her regrets, her beliefs. She felt. She let the emotions and sensations wash over her – the cold, the pangs, the anxiety, the terror, the anger and betrayal, the grief and sadness. There was some gratitude, too, but most of all, she wanted the chance to re-experience it again. She wanted to go back to living with her aunt. To work hard and make her happy. To have a good life.

She couldn’t help but wonder if she was being punished by the universe for being happy. She normally didn’t think so, but now she wondered. She’d had her year of happiness, and maybe that was enough. Maybe that’s all you were entitled to in one lifetime. If that was the case, she was very happy not to live in misery for the next sixty years ... seventy, eighty ... people lived a long time now, didn’t they? Samantha could live to be one hundred, and if she did, she didn’t want those years to be horrible. Maybe it was better this way that she not live to one hundred. She was happier this way. Not right now, but ... she’d had her year of happiness, and maybe that was enough.

***

Patricia Barnes rarely rose from her cot anymore. It hurt too much. Plus she’d had to empty her commode in the corner, but it wouldn’t be clean without proper cleaning supplies, of which they’d left her none. She’d bet most of her innards were gone by now, anyway. Not that much came out anymore.

Living in her own stench for this long, she’d noticed one benefit: the smell died. Not literally, but she became immune to it. It was merely the air she breathed now.

She wasn’t crazy about the insects. But they were crazy about her.

She’d gotten the cot and the carpet all dirty. She reminded herself that no one was going to ask her to clean it. No one was going to chide her. And she didn’t have to. Because she couldn’t. Because she was broken. She was sick. She was still dying.

Or maybe the fact that less was coming out of her meant she was really cleansed. That her body was regrowing, or just about to. Maybe she’d purged the sickness.

In which case, she needed more water and nutrients. Her supplies weren’t totally gone yet. Close – she could eat for maybe two or three more days if she felt so inclined. Though the thought of eating caused her to gag a stream of bright red.  

Patricia knew she shouldn’t deprive her body. She was slender enough to begin with. But it was too much work. And it didn’t feel good to eat. Her stomach couldn’t handle it anymore.

That wasn’t helping, she knew. The science said she could be better in two weeks, and the science was always right, wasn’t it?

But she struggled to remind herself that week one had almost passed. That she had one more to go. But would she make it? Did she honestly believe this was temporary and curable? Like a fever that breaks in its own time?

She wrote some notes and journal entries along the way. They were on her desk – she’d have to get up to read them and write more. But she should at some point go read them to understand if she was getting better or worse. Surely she forgot a few things. Sometimes, she came into consciousness without ever remembering leaving it. She even had a few visitors – the girls, Scott, and her old friend from high school who died in a car crash – which told her she wasn’t in her right mind. The visits made no sense, but she was grateful for them. Or maybe she was wrong, and the visits would make sense once she saw a doctor, got some medicine, and felt better.

But what she really wanted was to not be in pain.

There were only a few ways for that to happen, and she almost just wanted to wait and see what would happen if she would just wait and see.

Her room was kind of disgusting. She was glad Scott and her friend didn’t seem to notice.

***

Scott had trouble sleeping at night. He needed work. The state had taken charge of his school for the remainder of the pandemic. It had finally reached pandemic levels of badness. Almost one hundred Americans had reportedly died from the Rotting Death.

His wife, thankfully, worked at a public school which quickly implemented virtual learning, so they kept some of their income.

Scott didn’t want to be upset that his property was seized as a quarantine shelter. He wanted to be happy to do his part. But he missed his work, his faculty, his students.

And the nightmares ... oh, god, the nightmares. He dreamed one night that he held one of the students in his hands like a sleeping child, only she was pale and ice cold. He could feel her bones under her skin. He dreamed that he sat with Patti while she kneeled over in the bathroom, coughing up blood. He tried to lay a hand on her shoulder, but she shook him off angrily.

One night, he dreamed the corpse of a student crawled to him and put her decaying hands on his legs, pulling her way up close to him, her dead, glazed eyes getting closer to his, her mouth close enough to touch him.

Everyday, he wondered if he should reach out to Patricia. To Samantha, Brittany, and Kayla. He hated wondering if they were even alive. A man should never have to wonder that about his teenage students.

And everyday that he didn’t, his guilt grew and he tried to absolve himself a little harder. It’s even more pointless now, he’d say. But it’s more important, too. What would he say to them? He still hated himself for his last conversation with Patti.

With each day that passed, the shame grew harder to bear.

He was lost. He was too far from retirement. He needed work. But his was gone. He didn’t know what else the world held for him at the moment. He busied himself with webinars and networking. Thankfully, other boarding schools across the country were suffering the same fate as his. Teachers and students displaced, sent home. For their own safety, and some for the same reasons hotels and certain hospitals and clinics were taken – to house the sick. Hundreds of teachers experienced the same feelings as him. He connected with his own staff in these webinars. They shared their fear, their stress, their guilt, their financial hardships.

On the whole, only around fifty schools had been seized for quarantine zones. Everyone had hope that most of the infected would emerge just fine after their two weeks. They reminded themselves that the Emergency Response Team was handling it. That they were the ones now caring for the sick. That the parents were now caring for their healthy children while the sick were given the space to regain their health.

There even appeared some free webinars hosted by the officials for anyone wanting more info on the Premorputinexteritis pandemic. Here, the officials explained the science behind the virus, including the physical and mental symptoms one could experience.

Scott found it shocking. When the officials came to test his staff, they’d warned of the mental changes contractors faced; mood and behavioral changes like paranoia, psychosis, mistrust of others, inability to perceive reality.

And this was why the Emergency Response Team discouraged everyone from engaging with individuals infected with the Premorputinexteritis virus. To do so would only cause distress.

Scott understood. He attended several webinars and watched countless videos on the disease. From everything he learned, it was nearly one hundred percent lethal. However, studies suggested that with the proper environment, some patients had been known to recover, as if the body cleansed itself. He found videos documenting specialized footage of one of the quarantine hotels. It was very picturesque. The rooms were comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. The residents lounged in their beds, under clean sheets and warm comforters. Fresh food was wheeled to their doors on silver platters. It looked delicious, too. Scott thought they must be recovering very well indeed if they could enjoy garlic grilled chicken and Eggs Benedict.

He tried to make himself feel better, knowing Patricia and the girls were being cared for. Heck, if not for being physically ill, quarantine must feel like vacation.

That didn’t stop his remorse for his and Patti’s last conversation. He could have explained himself better. He should have stayed online with her longer to make sure she understood that the girls were fine.

But ... something nagged at him.

Patricia never once mentioned the officials. She insisted they were all alone in there. She mentioned her door being boarded shut. He knew she was confined to her office, but literally boarded in, with no ability to get in or out? He didn’t believe it. He asked one of the officials about it in a webinar and learned that it was probably a result of the virus eating away at her mind. The official then pointed him to videos documenting the treatment of residents in the quarantine zones and the differences between someone who has recovered versus someone who has not.

It made Scott feel better, but one thing he couldn’t shake, no matter what anyone told him: Patti had just been diagnosed. Save for a cough, she had no symptoms. She couldn’t have been so far along for it to affect her mind. Every professional said the mental was one of the latest symptoms, occurring long after the person started expelling their internal organs.

Perhaps she had been sick far longer than he knew. Perhaps the mental effects took place faster for some people. Or maybe he didn’t know Patricia as well as he thought he did and she was just taking her anger out on him.

This was one problem with containing the spread of the virus, he learned: several people thought it was fake; that it didn’t exist. And these people, even if they started coughing up blood or feeling off, would continue about their normal lives, infecting everyone they came into contact with. These people, unbelievable as it sounded to Scott, simply wouldn’t care. There were even interviews with people who sat in their homes, coughing into tissues, insisting the Rotting Death wasn’t real. That it was a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, their spouses and children would be the next ones to get sick. Their parents, their friends.

But the ones who started the cycle were long dead before they could learn from their mistakes.

Scott watched and listened to all of this from his home office, which he’d set up in his and his wife’s bedroom, and felt a little bit better. Maybe it was for the best that these people died. Maybe he was wrong to message Patricia at all. He’d only upset her and himself. He’d wanted to make her feel better, but she was already lost to him, already lost to herself and her own mind. She hadn’t recognized him. Sure, she knew his name, but to pressure him to endanger his own life and those of her coworkers ... it was truly unlike her. Lying to him, saying the girls were in danger when they were perfectly fine ... that was downright cruel. He didn’t have to put up with that. He’d always thought Patricia a smart, loving woman. But either she’d had him fooled or the virus got to her damned quick.

It’d been a week. In one more, her quarantine would be over. The Emergency Response Team strongly advised against crowding those trying to recover. They advised against upsetting yourself when the only thing you could do in this situation was take care of yourself. So they refused communication with patients. The only exceptions were staff who worked in the shelters with them, or (if the patient was recovering particularly well) with family and friends on the patient’s contact list. Unfortunately, Scott found when he called the number left for him by the officials that whoever was responsible for making the contact list for faculty and students failed to do so.

And as everybody knew, Patricia Barnes was responsible for gathering the students’ emergency contacts.

Although he knew it would be pointless and masochistic, Scott scrolled through the email he’d gotten the day before the tests. They sprung it on him only twenty-four hours in advance. Surely he’d cc’ed Patricia and told her to gather the necessary info for the officials.

But as he scrolled the messages, he saw for the first time, with clarity, how sparse they were. There were no instructions to gather emergency contacts. No ROIs. Nothing except to delay all activity, prepare, isolate, and if you tested negative, to go home. No follow up, very little explanation of why.

God, Scott felt like an idiot. This seemed hardly professional. And yet, he’d gone with it. Everyone had. Every principal, every employer who’d gotten the same message.

The virus was so new, we only had limited information, everyone said. We still do. We’re looking for a cure. Your authorized health officials will do everything in their power to keep you safe. All they and your government ask is that you do your part, as well.

It all made sense. He shouldn’t be so skeptical. The virus was a trauma. A collective trauma. He was suffering from it along with the rest of America. The rest of the world, really. They were all in it together.

***

Helen Kowalski refrained from going to Samantha’s school. She wanted to hear from Frederick first. No sense in both of them getting arrested. She waited for his call and left him a voicemail, going about her time as normally as possible while going mad with worry inside.

The hours dripped by like a week. It killed her to know that each day she waited may mean another day of suffering for her niece. That much closer to death, if what she’d heard was true.

After two days, she got sick of waiting. She normally hesitated to call the other parents because, well, biologically, she wasn’t technically a parent. She and her sister went through the same issues with their mom before an aunt and uncle rescued them. Helen considered herself lucky to have moved on from their past, especially when her sister hadn’t. But she remembered the catch in her teachers’ voices when they’d begin to speak of calling her parents, catching themselves and correcting to, “Your aunt and uncle”. Having to correct new friends that her life wasn’t ‘normal’. For some reason, it seemed so hard for them to comprehend.

Maybe it was a generational thing. She hoped people raised their kids to be a bit more mature now. But she wanted Sam to be independent, to spare her the embarrassment of having to reveal what a screwed up hand she’d been dealt in life. It wasn’t her fault. Why should she have to pay for her idiot mother’s mistakes?

But fuck all that now. She couldn’t love Samantha more than if she was her own. Samantha was her kid, in heart and on paper. She began making phone calls.

What she found was a mixed bag of insanity. On one extreme, she spoke to a parent whose child had said nothing about their final days at the school.

“And why would we talk about it?” the mom demanded. “There was nothing to say. They had their tests, all came back negative, and they came home.”

“You didn’t ask them what it was like?” Helen asked.

The mom sounded confused. “No, it all sounded pretty standard. And now she’s home.”

Helen wanted to berate her for not giving a shit about her daughter’s well being but instead reiterated some of what she’d heard.

The mom responded with, “Well, there’s all sorts of conspiracy theorists out there. I’d be surprised if Mr. Gonzolaz was one, but I guess you never can tell. Good way to rile the kids up, though. But don’t listen to him, Helen. All the emails said everything was fine.”

“Which emails?”

“Oh, didn’t you get them? The ones saying all the tests came back negative and that the school was closing down to be a quarantine shelter or something?”

“I got the first two about the kids being tested that day and about the phones being down.”

“Hmm. How strange. I wonder why they didn’t send them to you. Did they not have your info, is that it?”

“No, they definitely have it. They need that for your child to enroll. And I haven’t changed anything.”

“I wonder if it has to do with you not being a parent, maybe?” She sounded so innocent and musing, as if she hadn’t meant it to hurt like it did.

Helen gritted her teeth and said, “Will you forward them to me?”

“Sure! No problem. What’s your email address?”

Moments later, Helen scrolled through the messages. Sure enough, she never got the last one stating all tests arrived negative but that the school was closing and parents had to make travel arrangements for their kids. Each parent was supposed to be contacted once their daughter was notified of her result.

She scanned the directory listing all staff, students, and parental contacts, comparing it to the list of email recipients. The list missed three contacts: her, Frederick, and the parents of Brittany McClean.

She forwarded them the email, then called Mrs. McClean. “Cheryl, I sent you some emails – you probably already got them from the school, but I found out some parents didn’t, including myself, and wanted to check in with you. Have you seen them?”

Cheryl’s friendly voice responded, “I haven’t checked my emails since this morning, I’m afraid. I didn’t see any from you or the school. What were they regarding?”

“The last one in particular was an update on the girls’ Inexterisis tests. Had you gotten that one?”

“No! We’ve heard nothing except that they’re waiting on the results and the phones are down. I wished they’d get them fixed; it’s been over a week. Actually, I’m rather disappointed in the school’s communication right now. Why is it taking this long just to process some medical swabs?”

“Oh boy. Okay, Cheryl, I – I don’t want to tell you this, but that’s what I thought all this time. I just found out that everyone except us and one other family was told the tests all came back negative and to come get their kids.”

A silence. Then, “You’re kidding. When?”

“Monday.”

A longer silence followed by an expletive. “So, does this mean our kids are sitting there alone because we never came to get them?”

“It’s not your fault, Cheryl. We weren’t told. And I’m worried. One of the dads called me because he went over there to see what’s up. He spoke to my niece through the window, actually. She said things were god awful. So I heard their voices. I know something’s wrong and no one’s telling us. Listen, Cheryl, that father, before he called me, he called the police. I was on the phone with him when they came. You know what they did? Instead of helping our girls who were calling out the window, they arrested him. And I’ve been calling him and haven’t heard back. I’m worried,” she repeated.

After a long enough silence, she almost asked if Cheryl was still there. Then she heard the breathing and rapid footsteps. She must have been pacing back and forth. “Whoa, I need to sit down.” Helen heard the sounds of movement. “I’m trying to wrap my head around this, but I just can’t believe it. I mean, how do you accept that something like this can be happening to your child and you know nothing about it?”

“I know, believe me. I know.”

“My god, I mean, what do we do? Can we go ... get them? I mean – is there any chance it’s not true? Please tell me it might not be true.”

“Believe me, if I thought it wasn’t, I would not be scaring you like this. But I’m scared shitless. I heard him get arrested. I heard those police officers ignore the cries of my niece and take a concerned father to jail. I’d go over there myself and break them out, but they’re just gonna get me, too. I know this sounds crazy, and if I’m wrong, I will be the happiest woman alive. But what I want is to find out what the other parents know, see what the story is, and get someone who can get our kids outta there. Anything you can do will be a big help. Whether it’s calling around, doing research, or finding a way to have contact with Brittany that doesn’t get you locked up. Will you think about it?”

“Well, yes, of course!”

Cheryl’s heart sank as she checked her emails. She showed her husband and relayed the conversation. They began reaching out to teachers and parents. Their calls led to voicemails. Their emails generated auto-replies confirming their fear. Even the principal had an auto-reply.

Some of the parents already spoke to Helen. Most that had were deeply troubled. Some believed Helen had fallen for some teen’s exaggeration. One such parent said that her daughter made it sound like a prison; but then, her daughter exaggerated everything. She knew it couldn’t possibly be that bad, and parents had to know when their children were making things up. But most parents wondered why Helen, and now the McCleans, would be left in the dark regarding their child’s care and health. Did this mean those children were sick? But if so, the school was breaking the law by keeping them uninformed. Was it an oversight? How could such a drastic mistake happen? And if it wasn’t, why and how was this decision made? And by whom? Why would any of the staff they paid and entrusted with their children’s lives make such a damaging and irresponsible choice?

A couple parents thought Helen was off her rocker. But then, their children were safe and sound and hadn’t complained about anything since their arrival.

The parents who were concerned called police to do wellness checks and received the assurance that all was well. The school was housing sick individuals, as stated, and all sick were being treated with the best care possible.

The McCleans were on their own.

***

Helen began heavily researching Premorputinexteritis. She tried tirelessly to get in touch with Samantha’s teachers and principal, but they were all on leave. So who the fuck was supervising her niece?

At work, she was required to implement extra practices and protocol, including reducing the number of rooms she had available by fifty percent, leaving each room empty for three days after the guest checked out, and eliminating the breakfast bar and coffee station.

She was skeptical to begin with, but when she heard that only a hundred and five people in the US had caught the virus, she was both relieved and appalled. The hotel already survived off such a small margin. If they slashed their profits in half, how long would it be before they went under? Sure, she could work for another hotel – but all hotels were under this requirement now. How many would survive? There actually was a solution there. It seemed the hotel owner could apply for some Pandemic Relief Aid through the government to pay the bills and the staff. Except they lost two thirds of their staff, who were either too afraid to come to work anymore or realized they could get a hefty unemployment package just hiding away from the virus. Those that stayed would require adequate compensation, which they couldn’t afford long term. But they were going to do it anyway. Now she just had to wonder how pissed the customers would be. And how would they decide which half of their guests got booted?

At least on that front, they got lucky again as over half of their customers cancelled their travels. Some because they were no longer working – or at least not traveling for their work. Some had cancelled their plans for vacations, family reunions, weddings, and funerals. No one wanted to risk catching the Rotting Death.

And yes, it sounded awful to catch. Until recently, it was viewed as the kiss of death. Only since the start of quarantines had there been talk of people recovering.

But Helen was confused about the hype. If there were more than three hundred million people in the US, approximately, and only a hundred and five of them had caught the virus, that meant not even one percent of the country’s population had caught it. More like .003 percent. Almost zero.

And if the majority of those cases had died, as reports said they did, where were all these miracle recovery cases coming from? How was this magical recovery deemed promising enough to implement these quarantine zones? Sure, if even one person could be saved, it was worth the experiment. But ... Helen saw the videos. In all of them, the featured hotels were at maximum capacity for sheltering the sick, and all of the sick were healing. These hotels could house over one hundred people at minimum. That assumed each guest had their own room. Which was the expectation, and Helen didn’t disagree with that.

What she struggled with was how there were only a hundred and five confirmed cases when all these large buildings were at maximum capacity.

***

Brittany got sicker as the days passed. She asked Samantha to be near her; to hold her. Samantha obliged. She needed it, too. She kept waiting to feel sick, but she just felt sick from hunger.

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch it?” Brittany asked.

“There’s nothing left to be afraid of,” she replied. “The worst is already here.”

But that wasn’t exactly true. Those final days of talking with Brittany, pouring their hearts out to each other, keeping each other strong while also pondering their doubts and fears were magical compared to the day she awoke in her bed and saw Brittany lying oh so still on the bathroom floor.

Samantha called to her, a horrible feeling rising in her chest. She called again, louder. Her voice sounded high and strangled. She got to her feet and crept as close as she dared, just far enough that she couldn’t quite reach out and touch her.

Brittany lay completely still. The shudders that racketed through her were gone. That slow breathing motion one does when sleeping was gone. Brittany hadn’t slept well since their imprisonment. Now, the staggered little jolts and twitches she slept through every night were gone. The terrible aroma they’d gotten used to was just a little bit worse.

Samantha sat there a long time. She wanted to touch her. To nudge her awake and know everything was okay for a little while longer.

But that wasn’t going to happen. She would have responded to Sam’s voice by now. She would have moved. She would have breathed. But she didn’t.

Samantha began to hyperventilate. She stumbled back to her bed. Slowly, she began to shake and sob.

This was the worst. This, now. No one to talk to. No voice except her own to break the silence. No warmth to touch. No one to share the agony and grief with. That’d been traded for more grief.

Now how much longer? How long until the same thing happened to Sam? And would it hurt? Would it be scary?

Poor Brittany. God, poor Brittany, to go through that alone. Was she scared? Had she wished Sam was there? Sam would have heard if she asked for her. She didn’t sleep deeply – not for long periods of time.

And how long would Sam be in here with her? After a while, that was what scared her the most. If someone would just come let her out, this nightmare would be over. Sam could eat again, be with her aunt again. Things would not be okay – they couldn’t be now that Brittany was dead – but they could get better.

If no one came for Samantha, she would be here alone … with the body. And she didn’t know when bodies started to ... do things. She’d heard somewhere that after three days, they started to bloat. They probably started to smell before then. It already smelled in here, but it was going to get worse, and Samantha didn’t feel like she herself would be dead before then. In a weird way, she felt like she was just suffering, not dying. Dying shouldn’t be this long of a process. But Brittany was sick, she reminded herself. Sam was not. No coughing or vomiting. No blood.

One thing that really scared her was that bodies often made noise. They’d moan, burp, sigh, or even move – like spasm or sit up. If Brittany did that, Sam would probably have a heart attack. She couldn’t handle it. She scanned the room, wondering if there was a way she might end it now and avoid all the rest. But like the other times she’d looked, she found nothing. Nothing that would actually kill her.

She wondered if she could fit out the window after all. That might just be enough of a drop to kill her ... or if not, at least she’d be out. There might be cops watching – not that she’d seen any since they got Kayla’s dad – and they might shoot her or put her back inside, but ... in all honesty, Sam would rather be shot than stay here one more minute.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t going to fit through the window. Nothing had changed. She had all the time in the world to feel her dread, to see whatever happened to Brittany. What she felt changed nothing. It didn’t matter.

***

Samantha normally would enter the bathroom every day to drink from the sink, urinate, and shower. She didn’t want to step over Brittany for that. She didn’t want to touch the body. Maybe if someone was with her, who would talk her through it, she would do it. Even though she knew on one level her friend was gone, she felt guilty. Like she was shunning her. Samantha thought of all the times in her own life she’d been sad, hurt, or sick, and people ignored her. She never wanted to do that to anyone. She owed it to Brittany not to abandon her.

And she had to decide. Her body still needed to expel the small amounts of fluid it processed. She couldn’t stop it unless she stopped drinking. And if she did, it guaranteed she would die very very soon. In a way, she hoped that was true. She feared the suffering that would come from dehydration, and it scared her to imagine going several more days like this. They had already lived so long, with no food or human contact besides each other. It was longer than seven days. She’d thought they’d be dead by now. Their suffering would be over.

But god, her life would be over, too. And now, Brittany’s was.

Sam had to pee. She was thirsty. What was she supposed to do? Go on the floor? Out the window? Could she do that? Would she take a sip of water today and prolong her life?

***

Every moment Helen spent researching and calling felt like a letdown. The parents weren’t helpful. They insisted the school’s lack of communication was an honest mistake – one out of the teachers’ control and completely harmless, seeing how the girls were in excellent care now that the Emergency Response Team’s authorized health officials had taken over.

Helen didn’t believe it. The parents said her skepticism was understandable. That in her position, they’d feel the same way. But she shouldn’t doubt the science. Hard as it was, she had to let it go and take care of herself.

They didn’t seem to consider how they would respond if anyone dared say that to them. How they should have responded. No way in hell she was letting go.

By Monday, she made her decision. She called the police, the teachers, the principal, doctors, her state representatives, and the authorized health officials. No one was willing to investigate or give a satisfactory explanation. They offered no paperwork of a positive Premorputinexteritis test and no documentation of Samantha’s care in the quarantine shelter. They expressed no concern that Helen was never informed or asked for consent. She received no answer as to when Samantha would be released to her. Only that, “At the end of two weeks, she would be evaluated for discharge.” She wasn’t told when those weeks began or ended. Even if they were almost up, she couldn’t wait to find out if she was starving to death.

Helen found the location of the health officials nearest Samantha’s school. At work, she was required to purchase protective gear for herself and her staff. Now, when she went to the grocery store or the convenience shop for a quick lunch, everyone looked in uniform with their masks and gloves. Everyone appeared to regard those around them with cynicism, perhaps out of fear of the virus, or perhaps because they could no longer see each other’s expressions. The smiles that normally put them at ease around strangers were gone. The warmth in a glance that signaled, “I see you, and I’m not a threat,” were hidden, wiped away by peering eyes that said, “You’re my enemy, and I’m watching you.”

Helen drove over two hours to the site, which was at a clinic only forty minutes from the school. She was prepared for all hell. The bombardment of Rotting Death propaganda exploded over the last week. It was all she heard on the news. In many states, hers included, various mandates on citizens were imposed. She’d worked through the weekend, trying to set up all the necessary precautions for the hotel. On Saturday, she removed her gloves, mask, and shield to go for lunch. When she arrived at the convenience store, the cashier snapped at her, stating that face coverings and gloves were required to enter.

She bought a long, white coat and pinned her hotel name tag on it. Frederick was dead. She saw his obituary. He died tragically from the Intexteritis virus, it said. Around that time, there was a brief mention on the news stating he was infected and attacked a police officer by removing his mask and making as if to bite the officer.

Helen didn’t believe that, either. But she didn’t dare speak up. No one was listening. And if they wouldn’t listen to her regarding Samantha, they wouldn’t listen about Frederick, either.

Her plan was far fetched. Very likely to fail and land her in jail. Or perhaps dead, too.

A security guard stood outside the clinic’s entrance. He made her remove her face shield and mask long enough to touch a thermometer to her forehead and check her mouth for any signs of blood before admitting her. It might have been her imagination, but she thought she saw suspicion in his eyes. Something asking silently, “Why aren’t you using the employee entrance in the back?” But he didn’t ask. He didn’t call her on her flawed conformity. She was a poor impersonation of a doctor. But he might have been new to the job. Perhaps his ignorance helped her. Maybe he’d made a mistake already that had gotten him in trouble and he didn’t want a repeat. Either way, she was relieved.

Helen strode through the clinic, not knowing where to go. Not even fully knowing that she would recognize what she needed when she saw it. But if there was one thing she learned in life, it was to know how you came across. If you looked like you owned the place, you could convince almost anyone that you did.

And so far, so good. No one stopped her. No one questioned her. No one looked at her. Which was astonishing considering the clinic was almost empty. She had come here twice before with Samantha; once for a checkup, again for a panic attack that Sam feared was a heart attack. Like the clinics back home, this one was always mostly full. What did it mean that it was empty today? Were people so afraid of the Rotting Death that they were cancelling their medical appointments, too? Was anyone going to forgo life saving care if they actually did have a heart attack because doing so would be worth avoiding the virus? Helen sincerely hoped not.

She passed by patient rooms and areas designated for X-rays, lab work, and such. She looked for any sort of tip-off. Anywhere for “Authorized Personnel Only”. She needn’t have bothered. One of the sections towards the back of the clinic had a brand new sign above it with smaller signs on the desks advertising the Authorized Health Officials.

The whole station was unmanned. Helen wandered to it, reminding herself to look like an expert. She scanned the papers, folders, and files, trying to ascertain them without touching or disrupting them. Nothing stood out to her. And as much as she wanted to speed up, to grab everything she could reach and throw anything un-useful on the floor, she forced herself to slow down. To focus. To act now, but not if it would pose too big a risk.

Then she saw it, and it clicked. The keys. One cubicle wall was covered with keys, with labels above them. She went to study them, certain they would be coded.

They weren’t.

Helen had one second to wonder if there was a god and if it did this on purpose, but it didn’t matter right now. She could see the name of each location for each key and what it was used for. Most of them were “27th Washington St. - 207” or “East Holiday Inn - Master”. And that’s what she found. The master key to Samantha’s school. This was too easy. Easier than she expected. She pocketed it.

As she turned to leave, someone came to the cubicle across the aisle from her. Helen couldn’t tell from the eyes alone, but when the person spoke, she sounded female.

“Can I help you with anything, Doctor?”

“No thank you,” Helen replied. “I have what I need.”

“Okay.”

Helen walked to the parking lot, retracing her steps through the whole building again. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. If she was caught – and it could happen any second – it was over. For her, for Samantha ... and she was so close. So fucking close.

Hold it together, she told herself. Do not panic now and give yourself away. You got this. Act like you own the place. Like you know what you’re doing. Because you do. You know exactly what you’re doing.

She stepped outside, past the guard, who nodded to her. She waited for some kind of alarm or metal detector to go off. If it did, she’d run. She’d fight. She’d get in her car and floor it out of there.

But nothing happened. She walked her best authoritarian strut to the car and drove away seamlessly.

The last time Helen was at the school was when she dropped Samantha off after spring break. She could see Sam didn’t want to admit it, but she wasn’t as nervous to be back as she was her first semester or after Christmas Break. Sam smiled as they pulled into the driveway. She tried to hide it. Worry lines still etched around her eyes, but she wasn’t in tears. She hadn’t even cried the night before, unlike the other times. She had just started to feel safe here.

And that safe space turned into her prison. The driveway was empty. The parking for teachers and staff was deserted.

Helen parked and approached the front door. The key chain consisted of a mix of manual keys and fobs. The front door was a manual, which she didn’t completely understand. But it narrowed down her choices. She tried two before finding the one that fit the latch.

Inside, she waited for alarms to sound, for a cop, guard, or watchdog to jump alert. But nothing happened.

The lights were all off. Darkness surrounded her. Helen wandered through cautiously and turned on the lights. The school looked just as she remembered it, as if it hadn’t been abandoned. She reminded herself she’d only been here five weeks ago. But it felt like an eternity. Just like the past week.

She locked the door from the inside and studied the keys. They weren’t labeled, so she’d have to continue guessing. If she wanted to unlock the dorms, all she needed was the right fob. Now, she allowed herself to rush. She ran upstairs, resisting the urge to yell Samantha’s name. She feared there could still be someone hidden – an official of some sort. In which case, she would fight to the death if they tried to stop her.

The hall on the second floor was empty. She ran for door 207 – Samantha’s dorm – trying each fob on the bolt. When it gave a soft beep and green flash, she heard it unlatch. She threw it open and rushed inside.

Helen ran into death. The air was thick with it. The mask and face shield did nothing to hide it. That didn’t stop her.

She ran to the bed on her left – Samantha’s bed; the one with the small figure curled on it.

That small figure startled and rolled to face her. She was so pale. She looked so weak. Her eyes barely opened. There were dark bruises under them. Her hair was matted and tangled. When Helen touched her through the gloves, her skin was cold.

“Baby –” She pulled Sam into her arms, careful not to bump her with the face shield. “I’m so sorry.”

Samantha’s voice came out a weak, thin rasp. “Please help.”

Helen released her gently, easing her back on the bed when Sam began to drop. She tore off the shield and mask. “It’s Auntie Helen. We’re going home, you hear me?” She stroked Sam’s face and hair. “Can you stand up?”

Understanding filled Sam’s eyes. Her dry, cracked lips parted. She reached for Helen. “I’m not dead?”

“No, honey. Come on.” She realized she couldn’t leave any evidence of herself here, so she put her gear back on and tried to cradle Sam in her arms. She wasn’t quite strong enough, so she had Sam wrap her arms and legs around her. Even if Sam could walk fine, they needed to hurry. This would be faster.  

Turning towards the exit again, she saw what she missed: the body in the bathroom. She only saw it from the back. It lay on its side, facing away from her. But it was bloated and discolored. It was responsible for the smell in the room.

“Oh, god!” She didn’t mean to say it. The room swayed. Her stomach revolted. She considered it another miracle that she didn’t drop Sam and hurl on the floor. She just focused on getting her out to the car.

Once she had Sam stretched hidden on the back seat, she said, “Before we go home, I need to know if there’s anybody else in there.”

“Brittany. And Kayla.”

Helen wanted to go back. She’d turned off the lights, shut the doors, locked up. Chances were good that if no one had come for them now, no one would. She could run in quick and just make sure. If there was anyone left in there – anyone with even a small chance of survival – she could bring them out, give them that chance.

But if she was wrong, and someone discovered them here ... it would be the ultimate failure to be this close to freedom and throw it away just to play hero. She already failed to save Brittany.

Or ... they had. All of them. Not just Helen. Not her at all? She couldn’t say it with certainty right now.

Instead, she got in the front seat, started the car, and drove home.

***

The ride home was tense and mostly silent. Helen needed to know no one would follow them, pull them over, or be waiting at the house.

She continuously checked her speed and the rearview mirror. She asked repeatedly if Samantha was okay. Each time, she responded that she was fine.

“Will you talk to me?” Samantha asked a half hour in. “I want to hear your voice.”

Tears welled in Helen’s eyes. She didn’t really understand why, but she was touched. She wiped them away well enough to see the road and began talking at random about her week of searching.

Samantha listened. She’d become so cold since being locked in there, so even though it was nearly summer, she shivered a lot until cold became the default. Now she didn’t shiver anymore, but she was still cold, and it was hard to concentrate. But she heard what Helen said, and she took it all in with incredulity, followed by a sense of awe.

They made it home safely. No one was waiting for them. No one called; no one came by. Samantha began drinking juice. She insisted Helen not take her to a hospital or doctor, and Helen couldn’t agree more. She had no idea how to safely renourish her, but they could research it and proceed carefully. After all, they were on their own now. Helen wanted to leave the state as soon as possible. It would be financially risky as well as legally, but if anyone with a shred of care and competence were to investigate, Sam could be taken from her again, and she could be arrested. Or killed.  

They sat on the couch together, the door locked, the blinds on the windows closed. Samantha shared her story. They shared their tears.  

“I can’t believe you came looking for me,” Samantha said. She chuckled for the first time and shook her head. “You didn’t tell me you were a ninja.”

“The secret’s out now.” Helen laughed. “If I’d known the show was being run by a bunch of dumbasses, I would have busted in on day one.”

Sam squeezed Helen’s hand, then looked down. “I have no idea if Kayla is still alive in there. But Brittany … definitely wasn’t.” She started to tremble and took a sip of her drink.

Helen stroked her hair. “Hey, we still have the key. What I want us to do is talk to Brittany’s parents. We’ll spread the word so if anyone wants to go see for themselves, they can.” She added, “We are not going back there. It’s way too dangerous, and we will make that known to anyone who’s thinking about it.”

Samantha nodded. She didn’t know Brittany’s parents, but she imagined them seeing her friend’s body and started to cry. Helen moved closer and put an arm around her. “She was all alone,” Samantha sobbed. “They both were.”

“I know. It’s not your fault, Samantha. You know that, right?”

“I should have been with her!”

“You were, baby. You didn’t have a choice. You did everything you could, and you’re safe now. That’s the important thing.”

Samantha continued to sob. “My phone’s still in there.”

“We’ll get you another phone.”

“I tried messaging you. And Mom.” Her hands clenched into fists around Helen’s shirt. “I know I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She rubbed her back.

“What’s going to happen to Brittany’s family? And to her – to her –?” She couldn’t finish.

Helen sighed, trying for a moment to hide how it shuddered, how her own voice choked with tears. “They’re going to grieve, just like you are. They are going to keep living. And hopefully someday they will get some retribution. In the meantime, all we can do is keep going and doing our best.”

“How do I –” she broke off with a sob. “How do I tell them?”

“I’ll tell them.”  

Sam started to collect herself slowly. “I can do it, Auntie Helen.”

“I know you can, but I don’t want you to. Losing a child is the worst thing a parent can go through, and it will hurt to tell them. I just think you’ve been through enough.”

“You can’t protect me. And if no one’s listening to you, maybe they’ll listen to me. They need to know what happened to her. And how brave she was.”

Helen spoke low but firm. “You’ll get your chance to talk with them. You won’t be left out anymore. But I need you to let me handle this.”

Samantha stared back at her, unyielding. “Listen, I love you, and I appreciate what you’ve done for me. But I’m done being helpless. I can’t live like that anymore. Please don’t treat me like I am.”

Helen sighed and said nothing, lost for words. The eyes that stared back at her weren’t those of the little girl she feared for all these years. They were the eyes of a soul who’d seen too much, too soon. And there was no denying it; no taking it away. “Fine,” she conceded. “If you’re sure this is what you want.”

“It is. Will you be there when I tell them?”

***

Samantha gradually regained her strength while having endless communication with viewers of the McCleans’ videos. The world had access to their walk through the school. They’d discovered the decaying bodies of Kayla Gonzolaz and Patricia Barnes. They shared with the world their most devastating moment of finding their only child’s corpse curled on the bathroom floor of a deserted dorm, insects buzzing around her.

Scott went into a long period of shock before breaking down.

Helen and Sam went into hiding with the help of their supporters. She kept her communications anonymous.

Chaos broke loose. Civil war started between those who swore the videos were fake and those who saw the lies they were fed. This was their precious quarantine zone. This was how their ill were really treated. And their well. Brittany and Ms. Patti were the only ones to test positive. The rest were victims of – was it failed science? The lack thereof? A political agenda? Mass panic? Either way, it cast the actions deemed necessary by the Authorized Health Officials under intense scrutiny. Frederick’s death also came under question. What was the real story behind the supposed infected man who was shot by police?

Doubt exploded. Anger erupted. Cries for justice rose. For Samantha, the danger wasn’t gone. It’d just shifted to a new threat. But this time, she wasn’t alone. She could fight. And she was not giving up.