Published: December 2, 2014
Published By: Black Spine Books
Hidden away from the world by his famous father, Quinn Kelly strives to find meaning in his life while struggling with a deformity that has kept him from leaving the only home he has ever known. On the eve of his departure a sudden and deadly virus sweeps across the nation, killing nearly all it touches. Within days Quinn is left to fend for himself in an empty world.
But there is something still very much alive beyond the walls of his sanctuary, its malicious intent clear all too soon.
Joining forces with a young single mother and her blind son, Quinn must cross a dangerous and silent America in the search for refuge and a truth that may shatter his sanity and strip him of the last things he holds dear.
“He’s got a fever.”
Teresa stood outside his father’s door, one hand on the knob as if keeping him from going inside.
“Is he okay?” Quinn asked, shifting his gaze from her to the door and back.
“He’s going to be fine. His temp is only at a hundred. He must’ve picked a bug up while he was traveling. He had to take a public flight instead of the jet since it was being maintenanced. Those airports are cesspools of germs if you ask me.”
A rasping cough came from behind the door that trailed off into a wheeze.
“Should we have Graham or Foster take him in to the hospital?”
“I already asked him and he says he won’t go. Stubborn as ever.”
“How about having a doctor come here?”
Teresa lowered her voice. “I was thinking the same thing. If the fever hasn’t broken or is worse by this afternoon, we’ll call the clinic and either have an ambulance come get him or we’ll call his old physician in Portland.”
Quinn had to smile. “Doctor Kain? Dad hates him.”
“I know, but he’s the only physician I know of that makes house calls.”
Several bangs came from the kitchen below followed by a curse in Norwegian from Graham that never failed to make him smile.
“Graham’s making pancakes. Go get something to eat, and I’ll check on him before I come down.”
“Okay.” Quinn turned to move down the stairs and stopped. “I’m not leaving today.”
Teresa nodded, placing a hand on his cheek. The thought of anyone else touching his face nearly made him flinch, but Teresa’s fingers were soft reminders of the days when she used to pull him back from the brink of depression after seeing his reflection too often.
“Go eat and make sure you save some for me; you know how much Foster can put away.”
The smell of frying batter and fresh blueberries wafted from the kitchen and his stomach murmured, but he stopped short of the dining room, pausing in the entry to the living room.
Mallory stood with a pink and blue feather duster in one hand and the remote to the muted plasma TV in the other. Her back was to him, and she didn’t seem to notice when he approached and stopped beside her.
The television was tuned to CNN, a petite, blond reporter spoke into a microphone. Behind her a busy hospital bustled with activity. Nurses and patients roamed across the screen, which abruptly changed to a middle-aged man’s worried face who spoke with exaggerated head movements, jerking with each word as if speaking was a titanic effort. Across the bottom of the screen a banner with red letters announced Outbreak of flu strain reported in four states.
“Can you turn that up?” Quinn asked. Mallory looked at him, her eyes glassy from staring at the screen. She hit a button on the remote and the room became flooded with the reporter’s voice.
Doctor Douglas White, the head of staff here at Northern Madison Clinic, said as of yet the strain hasn’t been identified. H1N1 has been ruled out as the virus responsible, but he stated that so far a new strain of flu is likely the cause. Over forty people have been admitted here in the last twenty-four hours, and sources report that more than a hundred are being treated throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul. So far the symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, high fever, and upper respiratory congestion. The CDC has stated that so far this is not a pandemic by any means but urged the public to be as cautious as possible when in contact with someone who exhibits symptoms. In any case, we will continue to provide updates as they become available. Angela Singer reporting for CNN.
Mallory clicked the power button and the screen went dark, giving way to a shadowed reflection of the room and the two of them standing side by side. Quinn dropped his eyes to the floor.
“Do you think that is what Mr. Kelly has?” Mallory asked.
“Maybe. It sounds like the same symptoms, but I guess we won’t know for a while. Teresa said if he got worse, Graham or Foster would bring him to the hospital.”
Mallory twirled the feather duster around in little circles, spinning it until it was a blur of pink and blue.
“I mean, it’s not the bad one. H1N1 is the worst as far as I know, right?” Quinn continued.
The housekeeper blinked and seemed to return from wherever she’d gone. She regarded him and then gave him a small smile.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine, cariño. Don’t worry; we’ll take good care of him. I’ll have Graham make his turkey soup for lunch. That should knock the sickness right out of him.”
Mallory patted his arm once and then went in the direction of the kitchen where Graham cursed again, quieter this time. Quinn stood by himself in the living room for a moment, his eyes coming to rest on his distorted reflection before going to find the food he was no longer hungry for.
The remainder of the day slipped from the clock like water from a punctured bottle. Each time Quinn looked at it, another hour had passed. He’d gone for a run after breakfast, unable to stomach the sweet perfume of pancakes that the others huddled around in the dining room, the spring air whisking away a layer of dread as he jogged into it.
He’d run down the long winding drive, its blacktop clear of snow and ice now, the vestiges of winter melting in shaded alcoves beneath heavy pines. He passed Graham’s, Mallory’s, and Foster’s modest homes, each cut into a private yard that branched from the main drive. Their lawns weren’t yet green, but soon Foster’s plow truck would be stored away for the summer in exchange for the zero-turn lawnmower that never seemed to stop running in the warm season.
After a mile twisting through the dense forest of the property, the wrought-iron gate came into view, its top spiked with wicked points, a warning to anyone who contemplated climbing over to see what was on the other side. Quinn had slowed and stopped before the twelve-foot-high spokes, gazing up at them. He moved closer and placed his chilled hands on their bases, the steel so cold he pulled his palms away, watching to see if they would stick. The paved county road lay beyond the gate. It curved into sight to the north and then continued straight south, its centerline worn to a faded suggestion. No cars passed while he stood there, gazing at the road away from the place he’d always known. On other days when vehicles had come by, he’d always turned his face away even though at the speed they traveled, no one would have been able to see his features.
When he’d returned to the house, the main level was quiet except for soft music playing in the kitchen from Graham’s iPod. He showered and dressed in clean clothes before going to his father’s bedroom. Teresa was there beside the bed, a washcloth in one hand that she passed over James’s face, wiping away the sweat that sprung up almost as soon as the cool moisture dried.
“How is he?” Quinn asked, coming closer.
“The fever’s still there, but he’s resting now. He didn’t want any food but drank some ice-water.”
“Good. You can take a break. I’ll sit with him,” Quinn said, motioning to the copy of Watership Down he held in one hand.
Teresa nodded. “Thanks, I think I’ll lie down. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Quinn sat in the chair pulled close to the side of the bed and studied his father’s face. Sweat beaded and ran down from his temples, collecting in the towel Teresa had placed over his pillow. His arms lay motionless on the light blanket draped over him, and his breath came in slow, grating wheezes. Quinn reached out and took one of his hands, starting at the temperature of his skin.
It was freezing.
James moaned in his sleep, only his eyes moving beneath his closed lids. Quinn sat back, staring across the dim space of the room to where the curtains blocked out the bright day, before opening the book and beginning to read.
He woke with a start as the book slid from his grasp and fell to the floor. The room was darker, the slim shaft of sunlight that cut in between the drapes from before was gone, replaced by a sullen glow that barely defined the large windows behind them.
Quinn stood and retrieved the book, marking his place before setting it on the bedside table. James hadn’t moved, his slumber punctuated by the boiler-whistle in his chest. All the ice had melted in the pitcher. He poured a glass anyway, fitting the bent straw between his father’s lips. After a moment, the older man began to drink, his Adam’s apple bobbing, the water clicking in his throat as it went down. When he was done, Quinn set the glass aside and ran a washcloth over his forehead. The skin was cool there, frigid to the touch, but sweat still rose continually. James coughed once, a drawn out sound that set Quinn’s skin into prickling points. It was as if there were shards of broken pottery within his father’s chest, grinding together, rearranging themselves as he slept.
When James quieted, Quinn moved across the room to the door, noting the time was after six in the evening. Teresa had appeared near four, placing a warm turkey sandwich on the table that he’d reluctantly eaten, Graham’s expertise the only thing coercing the food to his sour stomach.
He left the room, closing the door to a crack before moving down the stairs. The sound of the television drew him to the living room where he found Mallory sitting on the couch with Graham and Foster flanking her.
“We need to bring him in or call an ambulance; he isn’t any better,” Quinn said, looking at them each in turn. None of them broke eye contact with the TV, and when he glanced in its direction, he saw why.
A map of the United States dominated the screen. At least thirty states were shaded in an emergency-red. Several were gray and only a few were white. Minnesota and Wisconsin were a solid black. The reporter’s words finally broke through to him, and he braced his hand on the back of the couch.
The CDC’s label of pandemic came early this afternoon when the slow stream of patients being admitted to hospitals across the country became a flood. Thirty-five states have reported over twenty thousand cases and five of them, including California and Florida, have tallied more than a hundred thousand. The outbreak appears to have begun somewhere in the mid-west, possibly Minnesota or Wisconsin. Those two states have had over a million reported cases of H4N9, as the scientists are calling it. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, has been inundated with patients and has currently closed the doors for lack of room. Tents are being erected outside major hospitals in an attempt to accommodate the anticipated arrivals of the sick.
“My God,” Mallory whispered. Her hand crept to her throat, and she squeezed the skin there over and over.
The screen changed from the map to the same woman who had reported the first cases earlier that day. Her hair was no longer styled and hung unkempt behind her ears. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her face held a tinge of red that her makeup couldn’t obscure. Behind her the sides of an enormous hospital building shot up into the night, its walls illuminated by lights like the opening of a feature film. She cleared her throat once, listening intently to a device in her right ear before focusing again on the camera.
We have just received word that the President has ordered a nationwide lockdown of travel, including all international flights into and out of the country, and has instituted Martial Law in all fifty states.
“Holy shit,” Foster said. He looked down at his hands and slowly pushed them into his pants pockets.
The CDC says it hasn’t determined communicable pathways for H4N9 but says precautions must be taken in accordance with more typical strains of the flu virus such as physical contact and fluid exchange. The disease is highly contagious, and based on the information we are receiving, it is the fastest spreading flu in recorded history. As of now, medical officials are recommending all persons suffering from the symptoms of H4N9 be quarantined and kept hydrated-
Her words were cut off as a man in a leather coat and a dark stocking cap exploded into view. He shoved the reporter hard on the shoulder as he snatched the microphone from her grip. There was an instant of complete silence and then the man’s voice invaded the living room, ragged and hysterical.
It’s in the air, in the fucking air, man!
The camera’s view dropped to the ground and only feet and knees were visible in the shot.
My kids got it and my wife and I had it within twelve hours. They’re dead. They’re all dead! It’s in the air!
More feet invaded the scene and a rumbling sound like thunder came from the speakers, drowning out the man’s cries. The screen went blank, and the noise stopped only seconds before an anchor desk appeared, manned by a wide-eyed woman in a blue dress and an elderly, regal man in a gray suit whose mouth hung open several inches. The man sputtered for a moment before nodding to someone outside of the view pane.
We’re…we’re going to take a short commercial break and be back with you- His speech cut off as the camera went dark and then broke into a vibrant jingle while a smiling man climbed behind the wheel of a brand new car.
Mallory fumbled with the remote and turned the TV off, leaving only the sound of their breathing in the room.
“We have to bring him in,” Quinn said again, reaching toward Foster.
The older man stepped away from him before he could touch his arm, his eyes watery and strange as he looked at him and then away. Quinn blinked and then turned to Graham and Mallory who hadn’t retreated but stared at him as if they were seeing him for the first time.
“Did you wash your hands?” Graham asked. His accent was more pronounced, the words rounding off at their ends.
“After you left his room, did you wash your hands?”
Quinn shifted his gaze from the chef to Mallory who still clutched at the skin of her throat, pinching, pulling, kneading it like dough.
“Is he any better?” Foster asked. The groundskeeper had taken another step backward and stood near the doorway, one foot actually in the hall.
“Not that I can see. Look, we need to get him to a hospital now. If this flu is as serious as they’re saying, he needs a doctor.”
He panned their faces, the only ones he’d ever known. They were stoic and unfamiliar to him now, changed in some elemental way as if their bones had shifted beneath their skin, only enough for him to notice.
“What are you doing?” He asked, and his voice sounded far away. A hazy mist was gathering in the corners of the room, creeping into his vision and he shook his head.
“We need to take precautions, cariño,” Mallory said, standing up from the couch.
“Like what? Isolate dad? Not get him help? We need to bring him in, now. No one’s died yet. They didn’t say anything about people dying from this.”
“The guy that grabbed the microphone said his family died,” Foster said. He didn’t look at Quinn but past him at a point on the wall.
“He was out of his mind, and obviously not everyone is dying from this otherwise they’d be reporting it. Right?”
They stood around him, a circle made of strangers who said nothing.
“If you won’t help me, I’ll take him myself,” he said finally, spinning toward the doorway.
Teresa stood there, blocking his way.
Her face glowed in the dim light thrown by the single lamp in the corner, drops of perspiration like dew on her forehead.
“I called Portland General. There was no answer,” she said, and tipped forward.
Quinn barely caught her before she hit the floor.
…. Other Books by the Author ….
About the Author:
Joe Hart was born and raised in northern Minnesota, where he still resides today. He’s been writing horror and thriller fiction since he was nine years old. He is the author of seven novels and numerous short stories, including the books The River Is Dark, Lineage, and Widow Town. When he’s not writing, Joe enjoys reading, working out, watching movies with his family, and spending time outdoors.