Authors: Tim McBain,L.T. Vargus
It all started in Florida.
Panama City, Florida
68 days before
Rex ripped the IV needle out of his wrist, machines tattling on him with shrill whoops and cries. He didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t going to die in some hospital room by himself. Hermetically sealed in a plastic shrouded death box even though there were thousands of “Ebola-like” cases in Florida alone, the number growing by the minute? No thanks.
He rose from the bed, his legs wobbling beneath him for a second. His vision swam along the edges, so he put a palm on the mattress to steady himself. He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths. It seemed to get better.
Still, wobbling legs and dodgy vision comprised the least of his problems. His head felt like a swollen watermelon about to burst. It hurt like nothing else he’d felt in his life.
He was 43. He knew pain. This was un-fuckin-real.
Throw in the periodic projectile vomiting of thick, red blood, and you’ve got the makings of a serious problem. It was almost comical to have a doctor weigh in on this. Pretty straightforward diagnosis, he thought: You’re fucked.
He knew he didn’t have long, had known so for a while. In some ways, his fever rising to the point that his consciousness faded out into madness had been a mercy, had protected him from the worst of the suffering as he disconnected from reality.
But for the moment, at least, the fever had died down some, and his thoughts were clear. He had a last meal in mind, a final resting place. It’d involve hard work, but his life had been full of that. It might as well end on a familiar note.
He prodded at the plastic sheeting cordoning off his bed from the rest of room, fingers searching for a flap or a slit or some opening to get to his things in the wardrobe. This wasn’t a normal isolation room. Those were long full by the time he was admitted. Hospital workers employed plastic sheets here to convert this normal room into a quarantined one. He figured this was for the better anyhow as it increased the odds that his keys were still around. If he could find a way to get to the other side of this damn plastic anyway.
The only opening went toward the door of the room, the opposite direction of where he needed to go, but he guessed it would work well enough. He turned himself sideways, trying to make his barrel chest as svelte as he could. He sidled between the plastic and the wall, found the wardrobe, opened it. His hand fished around in the dark. There. His shorts, and in his pocket, the keys.
After a moment’s hesitation, he slid the shorts on, but he didn’t bother with the t-shirt, leaving the hospital robe to adorn his upper body. Fashion matters little to the dying, but he didn’t like the idea of pressing his bare ass into the leather seat of his truck.
Hot leather pressed up against his sweaty taint? Fuck that noise.
He kept moving between the plastic and the wall, reaching the window and sliding it open. Here was the perk of being on the ground floor. He could pop out, cross a bed of petunias and some grass and be in the parking lot without passing a single nurse. The thought made him smile. If they knew, they would surely try to detain him under the guise of preventing the spread of the disease. What a joke that was. The world was already fucked. You weren’t going to unfuck it by keeping him in a room with shower curtains for wallpaper. It didn’t take Dr. Oz to diagnose that shit.
He dangled his legs out the window, lost his balance a little on the edge and tumbled down into the reddish mulch surrounding the flowers, his hands and knees jamming down into the wood chips. His head felt like swollen tectonic plates were crashing into each other just under the surface, threatening to rupture the shell of cranium surrounding them.
Everything went black and silent, and reality filtered down to only the pain. It just about knocked him out.
Once the hurt passed, though, he chuckled. His hands retracted from the mulch, and he stood and brushed away the red bits clinging to his shins. The sunlight made him squint his eyes, but the heat and humidity wrapped themselves around him like a toasty blanket. He’d lived in Florida his whole life. This sticky, hot-as-balls air felt like coming home after all of that time in the air-conditioned plastic nightmare.
He staggered over the grass and into the parking area, his legs tottering under him, shaky and weak. No damn clue where his truck was, but he didn’t mind looking around a bit. Being upright and ambulatory felt good as hell. The blacktop scorched his feet, but it didn’t bother him. He’d walked over the hot sand on the beach since he was knee high.
After wandering up and down the rows, he spotted the truck and closed on it. If walking around felt good, opening the door and sitting down felt better. He was winded already, his head had that swelly feeling, and the world was just faintly blurry along the edges. Still, he made it.
Inside, the truck was stifling. This was beyond a toasty blanket. He liked the heat, but the sun beat down on the windshield all day. This was dog-killing hot. He started it up and put the air conditioning on.
And suddenly the victory of his escape seemed much smaller. His life would still end the same way: He would die alone, unable to visit his family for fear of infecting them, unable to walk more than a couple hundred feet without getting the brain bloat headaches or whatever the shit that was all about.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. He’d planned for this, had a fallout shelter stocked to the brim with food and water and weapons. He had two bug-out vehicles. He had caches of supplies in strategic locations. He was a prepper, an intelligent and thorough one.
Unfortunately, the disease cared not. It killed without prejudice, whether you feared and respected it or doubted and ignored it.
He was supposed to make doomsday his bitch, and instead he was going to be among the first to go.
He reached into the glove box and pulled out a can of Skoal. It felt empty, but he was relieved to find a little left in there. He packed a wad into his lip, felt the nicotine tingle through the membrane and into his system. He leaned back and reveled in one of the few pleasures he could still enjoy. The final meal would come soon enough, but for now he would close his eyes and feel the tobacco in his lip and feel the stimulant enter his bloodstream and feel the temperature inside the truck return to something reasonable.
His thoughts drifted to his family. Maybe he would triumph over doomsday yet. Not by himself but by his kin.
His children were tough kids. His oldest, Ryan, got dared to go down a 25 foot ladder face first when he was twelve. Rex came out of the house just in time to witness the disaster. Ryan fell, of course, banging his head on every rung on the way down. When the battered kid finally hit the bottom and stopped, he laughed. Everyone was frozen, mouths agape, certain that they’d just watched a 12 year old break his neck six or seven separate times, and the kid fucking laughed about it.
His younger boy, Dylan, was a hell of a football player, too. Not the fastest kid, but one of those head-hunting safeties that just about decapitated any receiver that dared to go over the middle. If he were a step and a half faster, he might even be SEC material, but the coaches told him to expect to start hearing from the smaller schools as soon as his junior highlight reel got around.
His daughter, Mia, was the toughest of the lot. She was the bully of the family. Rex didn’t know if it was a middle child thing, but she had a temper to her and had beaten up both of her brothers more than once, along with what seemed like half the kids at school. Personality-wise, she was the one that took after him the most.
Those kids waded through some hard shit already. Like when their mother died of stomach cancer a few years back. He was proud of the way they handled it. Not one of them bottled the pain up, they let it out, they lashed out, and in time they found ways to deal with it. They didn’t get over it. Rex didn’t think you got over shit like that, nor were you supposed to. But they found their own ways to deal.
They’d be without their mom and dad now, but if they hunkered down and survived the first wave of this thing, those kids would be all right. He had no doubt of that. He wouldn’t be leaving them high and dry. They had a mountain of food and guns and ammo thanks to his diligence.
Rex sat up and opened his eyes. He felt better. He plucked an empty Dew can from the cup holder and spit tobacco juice into it. Except what came out of his mouth was bright red and a little too thick. Almost gummy.
He glanced into the rearview mirror to find red tears draining from his eyes. The scarlet rivers pouring down his face seemed to be gaining momentum.
He looked away from his reflection. This was it. This was how it ended. He wouldn’t get to eat that final burger after all.
He coughed and red spattered onto his fist. He felt the liquid churning in his gut, more of the same ready to come out the other end, he knew. As the flow increased to a gush, the blood filled his vision, turning it red then black.
He leaned his head back onto the head rest again, closed his eyes and felt the wet warmth of life spilling out of him. The fear crept over him now, made his torso quiver, made his breathing ragged. He hadn’t been scared this way often in his life, but he was now. It reminded him of being a little boy, home alone in the dark.