Alright, Endingers...the first novella in The Ending Beginnings, the prequel serial to The Ending Series, is finished and available to read! It's also available for free on Amazon, Kobo, Goodreads, and Wattpad.
The first novella in the prequel serial to The Ending Series.
A virus changed everything. This is how it began.
High school. Dealing drugs. A secret girlfriend. Carlos thought his life was hard enough...but then the virus spread.
The Ending Beginnings:
I - Carlos
II - Mandy (coming soon!)
“I can’t…I told you,” Carlos said, yanking his wrist out of the larger kid’s clammy grasp. It wasn’t that Carlos was small for his age—quite the opposite, in fact. He was already five-foot-ten and, thanks to the recently wrapped-up football season, nearly 150 pounds, and he was still a few months shy of sixteen. No, the problem was that Julian was just a little bit taller, a whole lot thicker, and really desperate.
Julian raised his hands, running his fingers through his greasy, dirty-blond hair. There was no doubt in Carlos’s mind that the kid needed a shower, and based on his pallid coloring and the grayish-purple, bruise-like circles under his eyes, to lay off the Vicodin. Carlos felt the slightest twinge of guilt for being the one who’d supplied Julian with the pills in the first place. Which, as Carlos’s older brother had drilled into his head, was exactly why the Hernandez boys only dealt the pills; they never sampled them themselves.
“What am I supposed to do?” Julian practically shouted. He took a lurching step forward, hands outstretched like he might grab the front of Carlos’s down jacket.
Carlos side-stepped, easily evading the clumsy maneuver. He spun around in time to see Julian skitter on a patch of ice and crash into the chain-link fence marking the perimeter of Toppenish High School’s snow-covered outfield. Glancing around warily, Carlos backed away, hands in his coat pockets. He hated dealing with this crap at school.
“Next week, man. I should be getting some new stuff this weekend.”
Julian’s fingers curved into rigid, claw-like hooks clutching at the fence to hold himself upright. Breathing hard, he turned his head so his flushed cheek was squished against the frost-coated metal. A thin crimson trail streaked from just under his right eye down to his chin like a single, bloody tear. It added an extra creep factor to the haunting, almost feverish glint in Julian’s eyes.
The final bell releasing them from school for the day had rung a good fifteen minutes ago, and there was no way Carlos’s sister, Vanessa, wouldn’t guess why he’d been late. She would chew him out the whole ride home for being dumb enough to follow in Jesse’s dealing footsteps, then track down their older brother and rip him a new one, too. Carlos started jogging backward toward the student parking lot, where his sister would be waiting for him.
“It’s just a few days, Julian,” he shouted, tugging his black beanie further over his ears. “You’ll survive.”
Turning mid-stride, he broke into a run. Each exhale produced a white puff that seemed almost solid enough to grab. He didn’t stop until he reached his sister’s decades-old, dark green Honda Civic, one of the few cars still sitting in the lot. The temperature was in the low teens, cold even for early December in Toppenish, one of a string of small towns in Central Washington’s Yakima Valley, and nobody was eager to linger in a parked car.
Hand tucked inside his sleeve, Carlos popped the passenger door open and ducked inside. He held his hands up to the vents, grateful for the warmth. “Sorry Nessa, I—” When Carlos looked at his sister, the rest of the sentence died on his tongue.
Vanessa was staring vacantly out the windshield, the skin around her eyes red and puffy, and tears were streaming down her splotchy cheeks.
“Shit…” Carlos reached across the center console and draped his arm over his sister’s shoulders, pulling her into the closest approximation to a hug that was possible in the interior of the small car. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but that didn’t matter. Vanessa almost never cried. She was barely a year older than Carlos, but he’d only seen her cry a handful of times.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice tight with worry.
Vanessa exhaled a gut-wrenching sob and clutched Carlos’s coat. “It’s…it’s Benny.” The baby of their family, Benny was barely two and suffered from a congenital heart condition—the same one that had killed their dad just before Benny had been born.
Benny had come down with a cough and a slight fever the previous afternoon, but their mom had been certain it was just the flu. And she was a nurse; she knew what she was talking about. Of course, influenza could be dangerous to a kid like Benny, which was why their mom had taken Benny to the hospital with her when she’d left for the swing shift the previous night. Just to make sure.
Benny would be fine. He would. He…
Carlos squeezed his eyes shut, holding back tears. There was no use in freaking out before he knew how bad it was. He had to swallow several times before he found his voice. “Is he okay?”
Shaking her head against his shoulder, Vanessa made a low keening sound that was almost too faint to hear.
Carlos felt a single tear escape and inch down his cheek.
“He—he…mom called in the middle of seventh period, but I didn’t answer.” Vanessa pulled away just enough to meet Carlos’s eyes. Hers, a rich chocolate-brown that usually sparkled with laughter—or anger or annoyance—were endless pools of despair. “You know how Mr. Martin is…I couldn’t check my phone. I didn’t know until—” Her chin quivered, and the effort it was taking her to hold back another wave of grief was evident in the hard set of her jaw and the tightness around her blood-shot eyes. “I didn’t know until after…when I listened to mom’s message that—that—” She took a halting breath. “…that Benny’s on life support.”
Her words hit Carlos like a punch to the stomach.
Vanessa closed her eyes, shutting out the world. “They don’t think he’s going to make it.” Her voice was high-pitched and small. Carlos knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together for long…if what she was currently doing could even be called holding it together. And she wasn’t alone. He was on the brink of breaking down, feeling like someone was shredding his heart while it was still in his chest, but he was determined to maintain the appearance of being strong—at least until he was alone.
“Come on,” Carlos said as he released his sister and pulled on the door handle. “Switch with me. I’ll drive to the hospital.”
Vanessa wiped her cheeks with both hands. Not that it did any good; the tears were still pouring out, if a bit more slowly. “But you don’t have your license yet.”
He shot her a look that clearly said, “And…?”
Without any further argument, Vanessa exited the car and switched seats with Carlos. As he was releasing the emergency brake, she touched her fingertips to the sleeve covering his forearm. “Hold on. Mom said this flu thing’s gotten out of control…said it’s becoming a huge outbreak. We’re not supposed to go to the hospital—it’s bad there. Too many people…” Vanessa shrugged, at a loss for what to do.
Carlos gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes. “What are they gonna do? Keep us out?” Snorting, he pushed in the clutch and shifted into first gear. He might not have had as much experience driving as Vanessa, but he wasn’t a complete amateur. “What about Jesse? Does he know?”
However much Vanessa was bothered by Jesse’s chosen “career” and his choice to involve Carlos in what he called “the family business,” Carlos knew she still loved Jesse and would want him around during such a hard time. Since their dad’s death, Jesse had become the sheltering arms of the family. Helping their mom provide for them was the main reason he’d expanded his illicit business in the first place.
Chewing on her lower lip, Vanessa shook her head. “I called and texted him like a million times, but”—she shrugged—“nothing.” She paused for a moment. “He’s supposed to be back today, right?”
Carlos nodded as he cautiously navigated his way out of the parking lot and onto the icy street. Jesse had gone down to Cali to meet up with a potential new supplier, and he’d been gone for a little over a week. “He said he’d be back this afternoon at the latest.” He glanced at Vanessa, offering a tight-lipped smile. It was a pathetic attempt at reassuring her, but he had to try. “Did you try the house? If he’s not home yet, he should be soon.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Carlos watched Vanessa touch the screen of her phone and, hands shaking, raise it to her ear. Nobody answered.
The parking lots surrounding Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital were overflowing with cars, some parked illegally against curbs, leaving barely enough room for the vehicles around them to vacate their spaces. It was so bad that, as Carlos drove down one of the aisles in the east lot, he had to back out the way he’d come in. To make matters worse, Carlos and Vanessa were hardly the only people in search of a parking spot.
Carlos breathed deeply, fighting the frustration pushing him closer and closer to losing his temper. Anger would be an easier and much more familiar emotion to deal with than the crushing grief he was barely managing to hold at bay. But he resolved to hold it together, whether it was anger, grief, or any other dark emotion that surfaced. For Vanessa. And once they were inside the hospital, for their mom and Benny, too.
“Fuck it,” Carlos snapped, tires slipping on the frozen pavement as he changed course, heading instead for the residential streets surrounding the hospital. He found a spot on the street north of the hospital in front of a large, white house. The road hadn’t been plowed since the last snow, and chunks of compacted snow and ice crunched under their tires as he drew the car to a stop.
With an anxious sigh, Carlos turned off the car, opened the driver’s side door, and stepped out onto the compacted snow. He stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and headed for the sidewalk, where Vanessa awaited him. Before he reached her, the front door of the house they’d parked in front of opened slowly and with an ominous creak. Inhaling, Carlos clenched his jaw, fully expecting some asshole to yell at him about parking in front of his house. He stopped beside his sister and stared at the empty doorway, waiting.
A little girl poked her blonde head around the edge of the door. She was tiny and pale with a cherubic face. She didn’t say anything, just watched Carlos and Vanessa, eyes somber.
Vanessa raised her hand and waved to the little girl.
“Are you here to help Nana?” the child asked. “I pushed the button.”
Carlos exchanged a look of bafflement with his sister.
“She won’t wake up,” the little girl said, a tremor in her voice.
Meeting Carlos’s eyes apologetically, Vanessa stepped onto the snow-covered lawn and slowly made her way toward the little girl.
Carlos watched his sister walk away from him, then glanced up at the clear blue sky, thinking they really didn’t have time for this—they needed to get to Benny and their mom. He huffed once in protest, then followed Vanessa’s lead and headed across the lawn.
When Vanessa reached the front porch, she crouched down until she was at the same level as the little girl. Carlos jogged the final few yards to catch up.
The child’s trusting, bright blue eyes focused first on Vanessa, then on Carlos.
“What’s your name, sweetie?” Vanessa asked. Carlos could tell her warm smile was forced.
The child blinked several times, and a few huge tears spilled from her eyes. “Annie,” she told them.
“Well, I’m Nessa, and this”—she nodded toward her brother—“is Carlos.”
Annie’s gaze shifted to Carlos again, and this time she smiled shyly, despite her tears. Little girls tended to fall head over heels in love with him. His mom always said it was because he had dreamboat eyes and an honest face. He wasn’t sure about all that, but the facts remained the same—little girls adored him.
“Where are your parents?” Vanessa asked.
“In heaven,” the little girl said softly.
That took both Carlos and Vanessa by surprise, and neither knew what to say for a long moment. Finally, Vanessa managed to gather her wits. “Well…how long has your nana been asleep?” Vanessa asked.
Annie sniffled. “A really long time.”
Carlos frowned, but Vanessa maintained her friendly expression. “Did you call 911?”
Shaking her head, Annie held up what looked like a car remote hanging from a nylon cord around her neck. “I pushed Nana’s help button.” It took Carlos a moment to realize he was looking at a tiny emergency alert device.
Nudging his sister, Carlos asked, “Can I have your phone?” When Vanessa handed it to him, he immediately dialed 911. It rang…and rang…and rang… “Nobody’s answering,” he muttered.
“Do you want us to come in and check on your nana? Maybe call someone else to come get you?”
“Nessa,” Carlos said under his breath, “we don’t have time to…”
The look Vanessa turned on him was full of helplessness. She wanted to get to the hospital just as badly as he did. But, she also wouldn’t just abandon the little girl.
“Okay,” Annie agreed. She opened the door further, and a pungent, rancid odor wafted out of the house—the smell of vomit, and something worse.
Vanessa started coughing, her eyes watering, and Carlos raised the collar of his jacket over his nose and mouth to block the rank odor. How Annie had been able to stand it for any period of time was beyond him. He grabbed Vanessa’s arm as they entered the house, stopping her from moving beyond the high-ceilinged entryway. “I’ll check on her nana, I guess.” He glanced around the entryway. There was a living room to their right, a door, possibly to a closet, to their left, and the way ahead was divided into a hallway leading further into the house and a carpeted stairwell leading to the second floor.
Carlos glanced down at the little girl holding the door open. She was wearing flannel pajamas covered in big brightly colored polka dots, and he thought she couldn’t be more than four years old, definitely too young to take care of herself if “Nana” was unable. Vanessa was one step ahead of him.
“I’ll look for a cell phone or list of phone numbers…there’s got to be someone we can call.” She held her hand out for her own phone, which Carlos handed over immediately. “Annie? Where’s your nana sleeping?” she asked the little girl.
Annie pointed up the stairs. “In her room.”
“Okay, sweetie. Carlos is going to try to wake her up.” She took the girl’s hand and led her away from the front door, leaving it open so the house could air out a bit. “Can you show me where Nana’s phone is?”
“Yeah,” Annie said, dragging Vanessa down the hallway toward the back of the house. “She has this one and…”
Carlos watched them until they turned around a corner at the end of the hallway, the little girl’s chattering still audible but no longer understandable to his ears. He wasn’t overly eager to head upstairs. The odor was nauseating, and if it was coming from Annie’s nana, it was going to be a whole lot more unpleasant on the second floor. Dread knotted his stomach.
“C’mon, man, you got this,” he said under his breath. He needed to just suck it up and check on the woman so they could finally get to the hospital. Steeling his resolve, Carlos started up the stairs, keeping his hand over his mouth and taking shallow breaths. He passed by countless family photos with hardly a glance.
At the top of the stairs there was a wide landing with four doorways, two on the right, one straight ahead, and one on the left. The two on the right were bedrooms, but with a quick search, Carlos dismissed them as “Nana’s” location. They were empty. The doorway ahead lead to a bathroom, which was also empty. It was the doorway on the left, the one with the mostly shut door, through which he was certain he would find Annie’s nana.
He hesitated at the door, feeling extremely uncomfortable and a little afraid. What if the woman was awake and thought he was some sort of burglar or was there to hurt her? Scowling, he shook his head, thinking he really needed to grow a pair.
“Ma’am?” Carlos asked as he pushed the door open further. “Are you…” But his words trailed off as he caught sight of her.
She was curled up on her side in a queen-size bed centered against the opposite wall. She was a small, elderly woman with short gray hair and ashen skin. She wasn’t just sick; she was dead.
Carlos’s stomach lurched, and he gagged. He spun around and rushed into the bathroom, spewing his lunch into the toilet bowl. He broke out in a cold sweat, and his whole body trembled. He’d never seen a dead body, not even his dad’s, but he’d always imagined that when he did, it would be dressed in something nice and made-up to look like it was just asleep. That woman didn’t look like she was just asleep. Nobody but a young child could mistake the woman in the bedroom for anything but dead.
Carlos stood on shaky legs and stumbled to the bathroom counter. Bowing his head over the sink, he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on his face and neck. He raised his head and looked at himself in the mirror, but all he could see was the dead old woman, like the image had been burned into his retinas. He felt dirty, all of a sudden, tainted by death. Frantically, he started washing his hands with the one of the small, flower-shaped hand soaps in the soap dish beside the sink. He washed his hands until the water was near scalding and his skin was an angry red.
Only after he’d rinsed out his mouth with mouthwash he’d found in the cabinets under the sink did Carlos emerge from the bathroom. Without looking into the old woman’s room, he shut the bedroom door, feeling better once there was a physical barrier between himself and the body. He hoped Annie hadn’t spent too much time with her grandma after the woman had passed. The thought was more than a little disturbing.
Carlos wondered what had killed the woman. Had it been the flu, or some other sickness? Shaking his head, he backed away from the door and jogged down the stairs. He’d heard a few reports of people dying from the flu, but hadn’t really thought that…well he hadn’t really thought much about it at all. At least, he hadn’t thought much about it until now.
“Nessa?” he called out as he reached the foot of the stairs. He sounded slightly hoarse, so he cleared his throat and opened his mouth to try again.
“In here,” his sister called from somewhere near the back of the house. The kitchen, he realized, as he followed her voice down the hallway. The smell wasn’t as bad back there.
He found Vanessa sitting at a built-in kitchen desk, a cordless phone to her ear and a piece of paper in her hand. As he moved closer, he could see that it was covered in neat handwriting. It appeared to be a list, with names and phone numbers squeezed in at odd angles wherever possible. Annie was sitting on the counter of a granite island, watching Vanessa. Her attention shifted to Carlos as he approached.
“Any luck?” he asked his sister, leaning against the doorframe between the hallway and the kitchen.
Pressing her lips together, Vanessa shook her head and lowered the phone from her ear. She pressed the talk button, and heaved a frustrated sigh. “I’ve had three people answer—one was sick, one was a kid who had no idea what I was talking about, and one was”—she glanced at Annie—“really nasty.” She shrugged. “I’ve left a bunch of messages, too. How about you?”
Carlos shook his head and pushed off the doorframe, aiming for the little girl. He stopped in front of her, crouching so he could meet her at eye level. “I, um…I’m sorry, Annie, but your nana, well, she’s…” He struggled to find the words. How do you tell a little kid someone they love is dead?
Finally, he said. “She’s in heaven with your parents.”
Tears filled Annie’s eyes, and her chin trembled.
“Come on,” Carlos said, scooping her up. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and cried, Carlos holding her close the whole time.
“Did Mom say anything about cops guarding the place when you talked to her?” Carlos asked his sister, scanning the two hospital entrances he could see from the sidewalk. He was still holding Annie, but the little girl was now bundled up in her winter clothes—a puffy lavender coat, matching purple knit cap and mittens, and pink boots. They hadn’t had any luck in finding someone she knew who could take care of her, and leaving her in the house with a dead body wasn’t an option.
Vanessa shook her head. “Just that we should stay away.”
“I don’t think we should take Annie in there.” Carlos tucked the girl’s head under his chin. Through the glass doors, he could see a thick crowd of people milling around inside the hospital. “I mean, if all those people are sick…I don’t know…”
“She was in that house with her nana—if she was gonna get sick, don’t you think she would’ve already?”
Before Carlos could point out that they didn’t know if the old woman had even had the flu, Annie said something quietly. It was too muffled for either Vanessa or Carlos to make out clearly.
“Hmmm, sweetie?” Vanessa asked, stepping close and adjusting Annie’s faux fur-lined hood.
“I got better.” The little girl’s voice was small, but clear this time.
Carlos pulled his head back and looked down at her. “You were sick?”
Annie nodded. “Will Nana get better?” Her big blue eyes studied Carlos, seeming to demand answers.
“No, Annie, she won’t,” Carlos told the girl, hugging her close again. He turned his attention to his sister.
They were standing less than thirty yards from the door, only two rows of parked cars between them and the hospital. They were so close to being with Benny and their mom. So damn close. Yet there was only one way to get inside; they’d have to go through a guard.
As Carlos started to take a step toward the hospital entrance, Vanessa snagged his sleeve, holding him back. “Wait. I don’t think…I think we should wait.”
“Why? Annie’s fine…”
Vanessa pressed her lips together in a thin line and shook her head. “Look, Carlos. Really look,” she urged. “There’s someone guarding the door on the inside too…”
Carlos could see the second cop through the glass. He frowned, not understanding her point.
“If some guy’s guarding the door from the inside…” She gave him a meaningful look. “They’re not just trying to keep people out of the hospital…”
“They’re trying to keep them in,” Carlos finished for her. If she was right, that meant their mom was trapped inside…with countless sick people. His frown deepened to a scowl. “But why would they do that?”
Vanessa shrugged. “Some sort of quarantine maybe?”
Again, Carlos shifted Annie slightly further to his side and held her more tightly. “I think you should try mom again,” he told his sister. Vanessa had already called both their mom’s cell and the nurse’s station in the ICU, where there mom usually worked, several times during the walk to the hospital, but nobody had answered either line, just like nobody had answered their calls to 911 to report the death of Annie’s grandma.
Frowning, Vanessa tapped her phone’s screen and tucked it between her hood and her ear. Seconds passed, feeling more like minutes, and finally she shook her head. She lowered the phone and tapped the screen again, then returned it to her ear. She chewed her lip while she waited.
“I—yes…hi! Oh thank God!” she blurted, her face filled with mix of relief and surprise. “This is Vanessa Hernandez, do you—no! Don’t hang up! My mom is a nurse there—Eva Hernandez. Do you know her?” She paused. “Is she around? Can I talk to her?” Vanessa met Carlos’s eyes, the corners of her mouth turning down. “Why not?”
Carlos kept his increasing anxiety in check by rubbing Annie’s back through her thick winter jacket.
“Oh, I—I see.” Vanessa cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her voice was too high, like she was just barely holding back tears. “I’d appreciate that. Thank you.”
Carlos watched his sister as she slowly lowered the phone from her ear and carefully returned it to her pocket. She stared at the hospital, at the third floor ICU windows. Finally, her voice dull and lifeless, she said, “Mom’s sick.” She looked at Carlos, utterly lost. “He doesn’t know where she is now, just that she got sick a little before her son—” She raised her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob. “Oh God…Benny’s gone. He’s gone, Carlos.”
Carlos couldn’t speak. He feared that if he did, what came out of his mouth wouldn’t be words, but a scream of agony…of outrage. This was so incredibly unfair!
Benny was gone.
His mom was sick.
They had to get inside.
Carlos felt like his heart was being crushed. His chest heaved with each rapid breath. With shaking hands, he pulled Annie’s arms from around his neck and handed her off to Vanessa, then strode toward the officer guarding the hospital’s north entrance.
The man was middle aged, and the extra weight he carried around his middle strained the fabric of his dark blue uniform. Despite that, the hard scowl on his weathered face and the way he was resting his hand on the grip of his sidearm as Carlos approached suggested that he was no softie.
With a deep breath and a polite nod, Carlos stopped a half-dozen feet from the officer. He cleared his throat, hoping his voice would be steady when he spoke. “Can I go in there?” With his chin, he indicated the doors behind the other man, then added, “Please. My mom’s in there. She’s a nurse. And my little brother just…he’s in there too.”
“Sorry, son. No can do.”
Although Carlos wanted to curse in frustration, he smiled, trying his best to look innocent and friendly—harmless. “But—”
The cop shook his head.
His emotions swelled as the reality that he was unable to see his mom set it. The friendly expression melted off Carlos’s face, and it was an effort for him not to glare. “Why not? What’s going on anyway?”
The older man eyed him skeptically. “You don’t know?”
“Obviously not,” Carlos mumbled, his patience wearing thin.
The cop narrowed his eyes, apparently taking offense to Carlos’s tone, but at least he answered. “The place is under quarantine. No one goes in or out until the CDC folks arrive. We’re covering the exits until then.” He frowned. “It’s been all over the radio and news this afternoon, and schools were supposed to make announcements…”
Carlos shook his head. His school might have mentioned it, but he hadn’t been in class sixth or seventh period. For what seemed like the millionth time over the past few days, he cursed himself for having dropped his iPhone in a toilet. After Jesse returned with the new drugs and Carlos sold enough, buying a new one was at the top of his list.
“Go home, kid. Your mom’ll be safe and sound in here.”
Carlos ignored the dismissal. “What’s the CDC, anyway?”
“The Center for Disease Control.”
“Well, why are they coming here? People get sick all the time.”
“Because we have a disease that needs controlling,” the officer said, annoyance evident in the sharpness of his tone.
“The flu?” Carlos asked skeptically. “But it’s just the flu.”
“Son, I don’t—”
“And what about all the people who have it who aren’t in there?” He waved his hand in the general direction of the door before stuffing it back into his pocket.
The cop shifted his feet, making his stance wider, and cleared his throat. “They’re highly encouraged to stay in their homes…and out of trouble.”
Carlos rolled his eyes and muttered, “Thanks for nothing,” completely forgetting to tell the cop about Annie’s grandma. He spun around and jogged back to Vanessa and Annie, who’d been watching the exchange. The little girl held out her arms to Carlos as he approached, and Vanessa seemed relieved to hand her over. She was small and fairly light, but so was Vanessa, and Annie was a much easier burden for Carlos to manage than she was for his diminutive sister.
“They won’t let us in. C’mon,” Carlos said and started walking back toward Annie’s house and their car.
“Wait! But what about Benny and Mom?”
“Benny’s gone,” he snapped, the words tasting sour on his tongue. He heard her footsteps crunching in the snow behind him, then felt a hard smack against the back of his head. His beanie did little to shield his skull from her bony hand. “Ow!” he growled, spinning to face his sister.
She stood with her hands in her coat pockets, somehow managing to look like she had her fists on her hips, but instead of glaring, like he’d expected, she was crying. “I lost Benny, too, okay? I lost him, too.”
Recalling what he’d said—Benny’s gone—and how he’d said it—like a total asshole—his anger quickly dissipated, giving way to his all-encompassing grief. He squeezed his eyes shut. He wouldn’t cry. Not yet. “Nessa…I’m sorry. I just…I don’t know.”
Vanessa held his eyes for a moment longer, almost like she was pleading with him to tell her it was all a mistake…Benny would be fine…everything would be okay. Finally, she averted her eyes and asked, “What’d that cop say?”
Carlos sighed. “You were right—the hospital’s on quarantine. These people, the CDC, are apparently on their way to fix everything.” He shrugged. “Then Mom’ll be able to come home. Until then, nobody goes in or out.” A crease formed between his eyebrows. “He said it’s all over the news and that school was supposed to announce it or something.”
Vanessa’s reaction to the cop’s information was the same as Carlos’s had been—a slow shake of her head. She sniffled. “All they announced was that thing about school being cancelled until after the new year, not—”
“What?” Carlos blurted. There was still another week and a half of school before winter break.
“At the end of seventh period…” Vanessa eyed him accusatorily. “But you didn’t hear it because you were skipping, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t dealing. It was just because Rosie nee—”
Vanessa threw her hands up in the air. “I don’t care about Rosie! You’re so stupid sometimes, you know? I mean, with her stupid gangbanger brother…” She shook her head, grief amplifying her anger. “We stay neutral. We don’t get caught up in their shit! God, it’s bad enough with you and Jesse dealing—”
“Shut up,” she snapped. “If you’d just go to class, you wouldn’t have to do it, you know? You’re smart enough—you could get a scholarship, and not have to save up like this, and then we could all get away from this place and live like normal people who don’t deal drugs and don’t date people whose families think drive-bys are fun!”
A few months back, there’d been a drive-by a block from their house. Carlos had no desire to get caught up in any gang conflicts, and despite his recent foray into dealing, Jesse had been careful about bringing in drugs that wouldn’t step on the toes of any existing gang-affiliated dealings. The Hernandez boys dealt strictly in prescription narcotics, and though Carlos didn’t know much about their business beyond his own minimal participation, he knew they were a fairly small fish in an unbelievably enormous ocean. And as far as he could tell, Jesse knew exactly how to keep the bigger fish off their backs.
“I know, but—”
“If you know, then stay away from Rosie! For me and Mom and Benny—” Vanessa’s words halted abruptly, and her chin started quivering again.
Vanessa looked off to the side and nodded, apparently not trusting her voice. After a long moment, she said, “Let’s get back to the car…at least we’ll be warmer in there.”
“I’m hungry,” Annie whined.
“You have cash?” Vanessa asked Carlos.
“Let’s stop by Mickey D’s on the way…get her some warm food.”
“And then what?” Carlos asked.
Vanessa raised her eyebrows, clearly unsure. “We go home?”
“What are we supposed to do about—” Carlos flicked his eyes down to Annie.
Vanessa took a deep breath, then continued on her way back toward their car. “Dunno. We’ll figure it out when we get home, I guess…”
McDonald’s, as it turned out, was closed. So was Burger King, Taco Bell, and every other fast food place they passed. Signs proclaiming that each establishment was closed due to the flu were taped to most of their doors and drive-through speakers. The only place that appeared to be open was a gas station near the on-ramp to I-82.
When they pulled up to the pumps, there was one other vehicle stopped, the driver sitting in his locked car while his tank filled. Unlike when they’d been driving to the hospital, the streets were almost completely emptied of all but parked cars.
Vanessa turned on the radio and switched it to the AM stations, which Carlos was pretty sure she’d never used. “Someone’s got to know what’s going on,” she said as she fiddled with the tuner.
“I hope so,” Carlos said sullenly. “I’ll be right back. Lock the doors.” He stepped out of the car and shut the door, waiting for the click of the doors locking before he headed toward the tiny convenience store. Which turned out to be locked.
But it wasn’t empty. There was a plump, frightened looking woman standing on the other side of the door. “What do you need?” she asked, raising her voice enough to be heard through the glass.
“Gas,” Carlos said, responding in kind. He glanced back at his sister’s car. “And…do you have any food that’s warm?” When the woman shook her head, he asked, “What about sandwiches? Or anything that’s real food?”
The woman nodded, then held up one hand and rubbed her thumb and fingers together. She obviously wanted to know Carlos could pay before giving him anything.
He pulled out some cash—three twenties—and held them against the glass. “Milk, too…the smallest one you have, and a bottle of water. And maybe a straw?”
The clerk unlocked the door and pushed it open the tiniest amount, just enough for Carlos to hand her the money. “I’ll be right back,” she told him, then re-locked the door.
Several minutes later, Carlos returned to the car, carrying a plastic bag filled with a ham and cheddar sandwich, a small bottle of chocolate milk, and a bottle of water that he was pretty sure was the most expensive one the place had, considering it was both fizzy and bottled in France or Italy or some other fancy European country. He filled the fuel tank, then knocked on the passenger’s side window.
Vanessa sat in the driver’s seat, having switched spots again while he’d been talking to the clerk. She let him into the car, and exhaling a relieved sigh, he settled in the passenger’s seat. Even though the car had been off for a good five minutes, it was still a hell of a lot warmer than outside.
He didn’t say anything to Annie or his sister as they pulled out of the station. Numbly, he unwrapped the sandwich and handed half to the little girl in the backseat, then twisted the lid off the chocolate milk and stuck the straw in the bottle. He held onto it until the little girl finished eating, then handed the milk to her as well. All he could think about was the sound of the news anchor’s voice as she droned on about millions of sick and thousands of dead piling up as a result of the flu. It seemed impossible.
And yet, it was happening.
Annie had fallen asleep at some point during the half hour drive from Yakima to their home in Toppenish. The house was small but comfortable, and both their mom and the kids worked hard to keep it tidy, inside and out. The snow-covered lawn surrounding the house was bordered by a waist-high chain-link fence, and the house itself, built in the 1930s, was painted a crisp white with dark green trim. It was one story and just enough house that the Hernandez’s didn’t go crazy. Being the lone daughter, Vanessa was the only one with her own bedroom. Benny slept—used to sleep—in their mom’s room, while Carlos and Jesse shared a room, at least when Jesse was in town. Even then, he usually passed out on the couch in the living room with the murmured voices and shouts from a late-night rerun of some trashy talk show filling the silence.
“You’ll carry her in, won’t you?” Vanessa asked with a weary glance back at Annie, who’d drooped sideways a bit while she slept. When Carlos nodded, Vanessa proceeded to exit the car as quietly as possible.
Easing the passenger’s side door open, Carlos sighed. He was pretty sure he’d never sighed so much in his life. He felt emotionally exhausted and mentally numb. He just wanted to wake up, for this whole nightmare to end. This kind of thing—flu outbreaks that killed thousands, maybe even millions of people—just didn’t happen in the United States. It had to be a dream, a really awful one.
If only that were true.
He was stepping out of the car when he noticed movement behind their house and froze. The sun had nearly finished slipping behind the hills to the west, and the dusk light made the figure difficult to identify.
Until she stepped out of the shadows. Rosie tentatively raised a hand in greeting.
“Shit,” Carlos muttered, offering her a short nod.
Vanessa stepped onto the sidewalk and paused on the curb, following his line of sight. Carlos new the instant she spotted Rosie. His sister folded her arms over her chest and turned a pointed look on Carlos.
He stood, then flipped the passenger seatback forward and ducked into the car to unbuckle Annie’s seatbelt. The little girl barely roused as he lifted her out of the car and hugged her tightly. When he again faced his sister, she still had her arms folded and was still glaring at him.
“What? I didn’t ask her to come here,” he said defensively as he headed toward the chain-link gate. In fact, Carlos had told her multiple times not to come to his house, and she’d agreed that was the best plan.
“Well, you can ask her to leave,” Vanessa hissed from close behind him.
Carlos glanced over his shoulder at his fuming sister. “Come on…you don’t even know why she’s here. With everything going on, at least give her a chance to—”
Vanessa held up a hand to stop his words, then huffed past him and pulled out her keys to unlock the front door. Like Carlos, it seemed that Vanessa was finding anger a preferable alternative to soul-crushing sadness.
Carlos stopped at the foot of the porch stairs, listening to his sister mutter to herself while she unlocked the door. Rosie slowly came around the corner of the house, ringing her hands and shooting furtive glances up at Vanessa, who now had the door open and was standing in the doorway, watching with disapproval.
Rosie looked gorgeous, as usual. She was tall—taller than almost all of the other girls at their school—and somehow managed to be both athletic and curvy. She had long, wavy hair that was a brown so dark it was almost black, and equally dark eyes that tilted downward the slightest bit at the outer corners, giving her an eternally sorrowful look. She seemed to be shivering despite her close-fitting down jacket and its fur-lined hood, and worry, or possibly fear, wrinkled her brow.
Carlos wanted to pull her close and comfort her, wanted to kiss her and tell her that he would take care of whatever was bothering her. He desperately wanted to do those things. “We agreed—you shouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice monotone.
Rosie’s lips spread into a weak smile, and she shrugged. “I know, but I didn’t know where else to go.” She laughed, and it was a desperate, miserable sound. “I overheard Emilio and some of the others…they’re being such idiots. I had to get away and, well, I just ended up here.” She glanced up at the sky, then at Vanessa, until finally her gaze settled on the back of Annie’s head. “Who’s that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Vanessa snapped. “Both of you get inside before someone sees you. God,” she scoffed, “that’s all we need.”
Carlos studied Rosie for a few seconds longer, searching her face for something—he wasn’t sure what—then nodded and turned away. He hurried into the house, eager for its warmth and for the chance to put Annie down. She was small, but he’d been carrying her around for much of the afternoon, and his arms were starting to ache with fatigue.
Vanessa shut and locked the door after they were all inside, then stepped in front of Carlos and held out her arms for Annie. With her slumbering burden, Vanessa headed for the hallway leading to the bedrooms and the home’s single bathroom. “I’m gonna give her a bath. She still smells like that place.”
Carlos watched his sister round the corner, then turned his attention to Rosie. He felt awkward standing in his living room with her. They spent most of their time together in her car, or in the Tri-Cities at the south end of the valley, where they weren’t likely to see anyone they knew. Should he sit on the couch, or in the recliner? Should he turn on the TV? Should he offer her something to drink? “So…”
Rosie started walking around the room, her nervous energy making Carlos that much more uncomfortable. She strode to the fireplace in the center of the far wall, spun and headed for the couch, then turned again and made her way back to the fireplace. She stopped, faced him, and opened her mouth, then shut it again and resumed her pacing.
Her cheeks were more flushed than usual, and had all the shit not just hit the fan, Carlos might have found her fretting cute. But the shit had hit the fan, and he had a feeling Rosie was about to fling a few more pieces of shit in that general direction. A horrifying thought struck him—what if she was pregnant? They weren’t careless, but they also weren’t saints, and not everything they did together included being fully clothed. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that Rosie was about to ruin his life with two terrifying words.
“I overheard Emilio and Pancho talking a little while ago,” Rosie finally said, continuing her pacing. “Pancho’s cousin came home after school and found his grandma on the kitchen floor moaning about her hip or something—she’s, like, ancient, you know?” She waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, I guess she fell and broke something, and when Pancho’s cousin tried calling 911, nobody answered—ever. He tried for like an hour…okay, maybe for like fifteen minutes,” she amended, “before calling Pancho for a ride.”
She shook her head in frustration. “But Pancho knew the hospital was closed or whatever so he brought them some drugs for the pain instead and then came straight to my house with this stupid idea, which Emilio went for, of course,” she said, putting emphasis on the last two words and rolling her eyes.
“Which was…?” Carlos didn’t really care, but he figured it was the right thing to say.
Rosie threw her hands up in the air. “To hit up all the gun stores in the valley and steal, well, everything, and since the cops aren’t answering the phone, they think they can get away with it. They’re going to store it all at my house and…well, I just couldn’t stay there with all this crazy shit going on. I couldn’t…” She leaned against the far wall, pressing her hand against her forehead. “God, I’m dizzy.”
Suddenly, her flushed cheeks made a lot more sense. “You’re sick?”
“I think so,” she said, her voice so faint he could barely make out her words.
Concern filled him, but it was quickly overshadowed by a surge of frustration and anger. She was sick. She had the flu virus that had killed Benny and so many others. And she brought it into his home. “Jesus fucking Christ, Rosie…you brought it here?”
Rosie stared at him, wide-eyed and unblinking. Tears welled in her eyes. “Carlos, I’m—I’m…”
Exacerbated beyond his limits, Carlos sat heavily on the couch and rested his head against the couch back. “Benny’s…he’s dead, and my mom’s stuck in the hospital.” His voice sounded hollow. He felt hollow…numb.
Rosie’s hand flew up to her mouth. “Oh God…I’m so—” Eyes going even wider, she raced into the kitchen, leaned over the sink, and vomited. Repeatedly.
“Really?” Carlos groaned, then stood and headed into the kitchen to see what he could do to help her.
It wasn’t much. After nearly twenty minutes of vomiting and dry-heaves, Rosie all but passed out. She would have collapsed onto the linoleum had Carlos not been there to catch her. He dutifully carried her feverish body into the bedroom he sometimes shared with Jesse and set her on his brother’s bed. He figured that if Jesse wasn’t home by now, he wouldn’t be until tomorrow. Besides, if Rosie vomited on Jesse’s pillow or comforter, Carlos figured it was the least his brother deserved for abandoning him and Vanessa at such a time.
“She won’t wake up,” Carlos told his sister. They were huddled together on the carpet in front of the muted TV, sharing a fleece blanket and talking in hushed tones. Neither felt especially well, but Carlos knew it wasn’t Rosie’s fault. They’d likely contracted the virus from Benny, or some kid at school days ago. His stomach knotted, and not only with nausea. He felt bad about how he’d reacted when Rosie admitted to being sick. As soon as she woke up, he intended to apologize.
“Did you shake her?”
Carlos nodded. “It’s like she’s in a coma or something.”
Vanessa shook her head and rolled her eyes. “And now we have to take care of her.”
Carlos rubbed his temples, wishing his pounding headache would go away and that the room would stop tilting back and forth. “She was scared. She didn’t know where else to go.” After a brief hesitation, he added, “I wish you’d give her a chance.”
Vanessa was quiet for a long time, for so long that Carlos didn’t think she was going to respond. “I have to tell you something,” she finally blurted.
Carlos drew away slowly, pulling the blanket off his sister’s shoulders. “What?”
Vanessa yanked the blanket back up onto her shoulders and stared at the stats scrolling across the TV screen, reporting the death toll by country. “Back when we were Freshmen, me and Rosie…we were close.” She eyed Carlos. “You don’t remember?”
“Sort of…not really,” Carlos admitted. “So what happened?”
Again, Vanessa took a long time to answer. “Rosie and me…we went to a party, and Jesse was there, and Rosie had a huge crush on him, being the big, cool Senior and all, and she and Jesse…” Vanessa hesitated.
“She and Jesse, what?”
“I walked in on them in the bathroom and, you know…they were together. Like that. After I’d specifically told her not to…”
Carlos’s brain felt sluggish as it processed what his sister was telling him. “Jesse…and Rosie.”
Vanessa inhaled. “Yep.”
“Fuck,” Carlos breathed. He suddenly felt sicker. Dirty. Disgusted. “I can’t believe she—we…what a bitch!”
Carlos rubbed his hand over his face, gathering his chaotic thoughts. His stomach lurched. “I think I’m gonna puke.”
“Oh, believe me, I know,” Vanessa said. “It’s not like I—”
Carlos slapped his hand over his mouth and lurched to his feet. Just as Rosie had done, he rushed into the kitchen and vomited into the sink. He retched into the metal basin over and over again until his legs gave out and he collapsed onto his knees on the white and blue linoleum, huddling over the large bowl Vanessa thrust at him. Eventually, he sank onto his side and passed out.
Carlos woke to someone trying to poke needles into his eyeballs, cheeks, and forehead. But they felt too blunt to be needles. He thought they could be nails, or maybe sticks?
“I’m hungry,” a tiny voice said.
They weren’t needles or nails, Carlos realized, but fingers.
“I’m hungry,” the voice whined.
Groaning, Carlos flopped onto his back. Whatever he was laying on was cold and a little sticky. And there was a rank odor in the air, as though someone had vomited, possibly on him.
He opened his eyes to see an expectant Annie, and sat up slowly. Glancing down at the front of his hoodie, he realized he’d been right. Someone had vomited on him—likely him.
“Where’s Nessa?” he asked, his voice raspy. His mouth tasted like crap mixed with rotting dead animal…not that he knew what either tasted like, but he could imagine.
Annie pointed, and Carlos followed the direction of her tiny arm with massive apprehension. His sister was curled up in the corner of the kitchen, the small wastebasket from the bathroom a few feet away from her.
With immense horror, Carlos recognized a second, less intense but equally foul scent under the overwhelming cloud of vomit. He’d smelled something similar once before, when he’d been standing in the bedroom doorway at Annie’s house, staring at a dead woman.
He clambered across the kitchen floor, every joint and muscle aching. He slipped when his knee landed in an unnoticed patch of sick, but he didn’t care in the least. Vanessa was…dead.
But she couldn’t be. Not her. Not like Benny. He was frantic, panicked under the intensity of his denial. She couldn’t be dead.
He scooped his sister up, pulling her upper half onto his knees and only remotely noticing Annie snuggling between them. Vanessa wasn’t cold, but warm. Hot even. And breathing. And groaning.
She wasn’t dead!
“Nessa!” Carlos cried, squeezing and shaking his sister at the same time. “Nessa! Wake up!” He shook her again, more intensely, but again, all he earned was a groan. Letting her lay back down on the floor, he looked around the kitchen. What could he used to wake her?
What could he use?
What could he use?
What the hell could he use?
His eyes landed on the sink, which he vividly remembered puking into. But…tap water tended to be ice cold this time of year, and a splash of that would wake the dead. Or the almost dead.
With a grunt, he used the wall to steady himself as he rose to a hunched standing position. He lurched across the kitchen to the sink, the world seeming to spin around him. He was so incredibly dizzy, and his legs felt boneless and shaky.
When he reached the sink, he leaned his elbows on the edge and turned on the faucet, avoiding looking at the contents of the basin. Through the east-facing window behind the sink, he could see the first sliver of the sun as it started to rise. He frowned, surprised he’d slept through the whole night when he felt so crappy…and had been sleeping on the cold, hard kitchen floor.
He flipped the switch on the wall beside the window, bringing the garbage disposal to life. That, at least, sped up the process of clearing out the sink. He reached for a half-full glass on the counter to the right, dumped out the room temperature water, and refilled it with frigid water from the tap. He drank the whole glass down greedily, then filled it again.
But when he turned to start his way back across the kitchen, a surprisingly daunting task, he realized how much of an idiot he was being. Vanessa was sick, and if she—or him, for that matter—was to have any chance of recovering instead of ending up like Annie’s grandma and Benny, then she needed rest. She needed to sleep as much as possible so her body could heal itself. She didn’t need him splashing her with ice-cold water.
Carlos turned back to the sink, setting the glass on the counter and shutting off both the disposal and the faucet. He glanced down at Annie, who was still sitting on the floor beside Vanessa.
“You went to sleep on the floor for a long time,” she told him, her lower lip sticking out like she might burst into tears at any moment. “I’m scared.”
Carlos’s lips spread into a weak smile, and he raised a shoulder, hoping to look nonchalant. “Sometimes I like to change it up, sleep in the kitchen…” He shook his head. Even a four-year-old could see through that lie, or maybe especially a four-year-old.
“Can I have some juice?”
“Sure.” Carlos trundled over to the fridge and took out a plastic jug of OJ. He retrieved a small plastic cup from the overhead cabinet beside the fridge and, hands trembling, somehow managed to fill it without spilling. “Here you go,” he said, holding the cup out to the little girl.
Annie rose to her feet and trotted over to him, accepting the orange juice eagerly.
Carlos returned the jug to the fridge and exchanged it for a bag of plain bagels from the middle shelf. He felt weak and half-starved, as though he hadn’t eaten anything in days. He practically tore open the bag and shoved the first bagel into his mouth, consuming nearly a quarter of it in one bite. Once he’d finished that bagel, he pulled out two more and split them in half, sticking them in the four-slot toaster.
“D’you like peanut butter?” he asked the little girl, who was watching him with wide, somber eyes while she drank her juice.
“Cool,” he said, grateful that preparing her breakfast would be as easy as slapping some peanut butter on a toasted bagel. He wasn’t sure he had the energy for much else. The bagel he’d already scarfed down seemed to be helping, along with the water, but what he really needed was to sleep somewhere more comfortable than the kitchen floor, possibly for the rest of the day. As his eyes landed on his sister, he figured she could use a change of scenery as well.
Carlos worked his head from side to side, stretching his neck with several sharp cracks, then pushed off the edge of the counter. He didn’t have the strength to carry Vanessa anywhere, but he managed to drag her as gently as possible into the living room. He placed a throw pillow from the couch under her head and covered her with the fleece blanket they’d been sharing the previous night.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of an open, apparently empty box of cereal and a handful of discarded granola bar wrappers strewn about on the floor in front of the TV. He looked at Annie, who had followed him into the living room and was sitting cross-legged on the floor at Vanessa’s feet, holding the cup of juice in both hands.
“Did you eat all that?” Carlos asked the little girl, surprised, despite the evidence, when she nodded. “Last night? You ate all of that…last night?”
Annie shook her head. “Yesterday.” The single word was as shocking as stepping into an ice-cold shower.
Frantically, Carlos searched for Vanessa’s phone. He found it on the end table beside the couch, but the battery appeared to be dead. Luckily, his family had chargers plugged in to an outlet in pretty much every room of the house, including the one behind the end table. He plugged in the phone and stared at the screen while it powered up. It seemed to take forever.
Once it was booted up, all Carlos could do was stare at the date. For at least a minute, he just stared. He couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem possible. He’d passed out on Friday night, but the display claimed it was Sunday morning. How the hell had he lost an entire day?
He glanced at the granola bar wrappers, then remembered the faint odor he’d noticed when he’d first awoken. He’d thought it was Vanessa, had thought she was…
“Rosie,” he whispered. He dropped the phone and stumbled down the hallway to his and Jesse’s bedroom, falling to his knees beside Jesse’s bed.
Rosie hadn’t vomited in her sleep like he and Vanessa had done. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed, peaceful.
“Rosie?” Carlos touched a hand to her pale cheek and drew back almost immediately. She was cold. And the smell—it was faint, but it was stronger in the bedroom than it had been in the kitchen. “Rosie…Oh God, Rosie…” Carlos bowed his head, and for the first time since his dad’s death, for the first time in years, he truly cried.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “so sorry.” He regretted the last thoughts he’d had about her, the last thing he’d said about her. He didn’t care about whatever had happened between her and his brother. He didn’t care. He could forgive her for not telling him. He would forgive her if she would just wake up. “Please, Rosie…wake up…”
“Are you sad?” a tiny voice asked from the doorway.
Carlos raised his head and wiped his face free of tears. He cleared his throat roughly. “Yeah, Annie, I am.”
Her quick, faint footsteps marked her progress as she entered the room. She wriggled under his arm, crawled onto his lap, and wrapped her little arms around his neck. “Nana says hugs are the best medicine if you’re sad.”
Carlos clutched at the little girl, drawing comfort from her presence.
They sat like that for a few minutes, until Annie broke the silence. “Can I have something to eat now?”
Carlos laughed. It was a hollow sound, but at least it was something. He set Annie on her feet. “Yeah. Why don’t you go check on Nessa, and I’ll be out in a minute, okay?”
Annie nodded and left the room.
Once she was gone, Carlos turned his attention back to Rosie. He’d really liked her—a lot. For a little while, he thought he might have even loved her, but the news Vanessa had shared had shattered that illusion. Still, seeing her like this, knowing she was gone, made his heart ache intensely. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve this. None of them did.
“Goodbye, Rosie,” he said, swallowing several times to hold in the renewed urge to cry. He shook his head, denying his weakness, and started wrapping the comforter around her body, hoping it would at least contain the stench for a while. When he rolled her over to wrap her more fully in the blanket, her body felt stiff. He didn’t know enough about bodies to know what that meant about how long she’d been gone, but from biology class, he was fairly sure she hadn’t just died. Plus, she was cold.
Feeling somewhat numb, Carlos returned to the kitchen and washed his hands. His motions were robotic as he spread peanut butter on the toasted bagels for him and Annie. They ate on the couch, watching Vanessa sleep. To Carlos, the food tasted like cardboard, but it was what his body needed.
When he was finished, he lay down on the couch with Annie snuggling in beside him. “How ‘bout a nap?” he asked quietly.
“I’m not sleepy,” Annie said, following the statement up with an enormous yawn.
“Yeah, me either.”
Within seconds, they were both fast asleep.
Carlos woke to the sound of screaming. Terrified, blood-curdling screaming. He shot upright, a quick glance around telling him he was on the couch in the living room. Vanessa. She was the person screaming. Down the hallway, in one of the bedrooms.
Scrambling to his feet, Carlos skittered around the corner into the hallway and burst through the open doorway into his and Jesse’s room. He nearly trampled Annie, who was standing in the middle of the room, wide-eyed and trembling, on the verge of a full-blown meltdown. Vanessa stood beside Jesse’s bed, no longer screaming, but staring in horror at what she’d found wrapped inside the comforter. Or rather, who she’d found.
Carlos scooped Annie up, and she latched on to him like a child-sized barnacle. He strode to Jesse’s bedside and flipped the comforter back over Rosie’s face. It was grayer, making her somehow seem more dead than she’d appeared when he’d first found her.
“That—that’s Rosie,” Vanessa said, pointing at the comforter. “In a blanket. She—she’s dead. She’s dead, Carlos, in our house. She’s dead and…what if someone finds her? What if the police come?” She started wringing her hands. “Oh God. Oh dear God.” Her wide, horrified eyes latched on to Carlos. “Oh my God, Carlos. Rosie’s dead!”
“I know, Nessa,” Carlos said, shifting Annie a little to the side so he could hold her with one arm and wrap the other around his sister. He led her back out to the living room and settled her on the couch.
“What if Emilio comes looking for her? She’s dead, and—and…he’ll kill you, Carlos! He’ll kill you! We have to call the police…but what if they still don’t answer?” She stood abruptly. “We should bury her. But…the ground’s frozen…” She slowly sank back down to the couch and looked at Carlos. “What do we do?”
Carlos somehow managed to unlatch Annie’s limbs from around his neck and waist, and set her on the couch beside Vanessa. “Take care of Annie. She’s probably hungry. The monster’s always hungry,” Carlos added dryly. “I’ll move R—the body out to the shed, then I’m showering.”
“Good…that’s good. You stink,” Vanessa told him, then sniffed her shoulder and added, “So do I.”
By mid-afternoon, only the living were left in the house, and everyone was cleanly scrubbed of all remnants of illness. They were sitting at the dining room table, Annie curled up on Vanessa’s lap, staring at the radio they’d moved to the table from the kitchen. It was the radio their mom used when cooking, at least on those rare nights she was actually home to cook.
Carlos stretched in his chair. He still felt a little achy and weaker than usual, but he was alive, as were his sister and Annie. That was better than most people could say.
This will be this station’s final broadcast…
Carlos paid close attention to the message he’d already listened to twice. They couldn’t get a television signal, but all of the radio stations seemed to be playing the same thing on a loop.
…The President of the United States of America sent out the following message few minutes ago. To all who are listening, I wish you luck.
Our country is at war. Humanity is at war, yet our enemy is not one we can fight openly. Our enemy has swept through every nation, attacking discretely, killing indiscriminately. We lost thousands before we even knew we were under attack. Many have already fallen, and many more will fall. But we cannot give up the fight.
Over the past century, through technological achievements, we made our world smaller. We made the time it takes to communicate across oceans instantaneous, and the time it takes to travel those same routes nearly as fast. We made our world smaller, and in doing so, we sowed the seeds of our own destruction: a global pandemic.
I regret to tell you that as of midnight on the 10th of December, over eighty percent of the world’s population has reported or is assumed dead. It is estimated that the death toll will continue to climb. This news is devastating, I know, but all is not lost.
Some of us are surviving. This is how we will fight our enemy—by not giving up, by being resilient and resourceful, by surviving. We are not a species that will go out quietly, so I task those of you who are still alive with one essential purpose: live.
If you believe in a higher power, ask for guidance. If you don’t, believe in your fellow man. You, the survivors, have the chance to start over, to build anew. Learn from our mistakes. Let the world remain big.
And most importantly, live.
God bless you, my beloved citizens of this great nation. God bless you, and goodnight.
This will be this station’s final broadcast…
Carlos clicked off the radio and sat back in his chair.
Vanessa sniffled and wiped a stray tear from her cheek.
“That was last night,” Carlos said. “Do you think they’re still alive…wherever they are?”
“Who knows,” Vanessa said, shaking her head. “So what should we do now”—she held up her phone—“because alternating between calling Mom, Jesse, the hospital, and the police is getting us nowhere, and—”
Carlos did a double take at the phone’s screen and snatched the device out of his sister’s hand. He flipped it around and held it up in front of her face. “You’ve got a text!”
Vanessa’s face lit up. “It must be Jesse…or Mom!”
Carlos swiped his thumb across the screen to unlock it, and the display immediately blacked out. “What the f—“ Glancing down at Annie, he amended his exclamation with, “heck.” He pressed the power button. Nothing. “It just turned off.”
Vanessa frowned and reached for the phone. “That’s weird…the battery was like half full.” She stood and set Annie on the floor, then crossed the room to the charger behind the end table. “Maybe I was wrong about the battery,” she said as she plugged in the phone and pressed the power button. “Maybe it just needs to charge, or be reset, or—” She looked at Carlos. “Did you see any of the message?”
Clenching his jaw, he shook his head. Abruptly, he stood, his chair tipping back precariously on two legs.
“What are you doing?”
“Changing into warmer clothes. I think we should go back to the hospital…to get Mom.” Carlos started toward his room.
Vanessa followed close behind him. “Wait. We should think this through, you know. Make sure we’re ready for—”
“And what if Mom needs help right now? I’m not going just sit around. We should be doing something!”
“I know, but—”
Carlos spun in the bedroom doorway, furious and fully aware that his anger was misplaced. He didn’t care. He was freaked out and so close to breaking. “But what?”
Vanessa took a step back at hearing the harshness in his tone. “I’m scared,” she said, barely loud enough for Carlos to hear.
Exhaling heavily, he retreated a few steps into his room. “Yeah…me too.”
They were just reaching the outskirts of their small town, Vanessa at the wheel, when Carlos grabbed Vanessa’s nearest wrist. Her hand had been on the gearshift, but slipped off under the force of Carlos’s grip. “Stop.”
She shot her brother a confused glance. “Wha—”
“Just stop!” he urged. When the car came to a halt, he pointed through the windshield to the last house on the right side of the street, where the residential area gave way to fields of snow and orchards of dormant apple trees. It was about a quarter of a mile away. “Someone just came out of that house.” It was late enough in the afternoon that it was hard to make out much about the person, other than that they were standing on the porch and wearing light colors.
Vanessa stared at the survivor, blinked, then turned thoughtful eyes on Carlos.
“D’you think we should try to talk to them?” he asked, frowning. It was the first living person they’d seen, outside of themselves, in nearly two full days.
Nodding, Vanessa said, “Yeah, okay…but from the car,” and started inching the Civic forward as slowly as possible.
“At this rate we won’t get there 'til tomorrow.”
Vanessa exhaled, adding a touch of a nervous laugh. The look she flashed his way was slightly apologetic. “I didn’t want to spook ‘em.” She pressed down on the gas pedal, and soon they were slowing to a stop in front of the house.
A young woman stood on the porch of the house in a long, plain cotton nightgown and robe. She cradled a bundled-up baby in her arms and, with a placid smile, nodded in greeting at their car across a well-kept white picket fence. For some reason, it seemed odd to see another person, though the outbreak had really only grown out of control a couple days ago.
“A mommy and a baby!” Annie squealed happily from the backseat.
As the woman descended the porch stairs and started across the yard toward their car, Carlos looked at his sister, eyebrows raised. “So…”
“Maybe we should just go. I mean, what if—”
“What? She pulls a gun on us?” Carlos asked dubiously. He shrugged a shoulder and started to roll down the window. “She might know something we don’t…we’ve got to at least ask.”
Vanessa’s eyes were filled with worry, but she nodded. He rolled down the window two-thirds of the way and watched the woman pass through the short gate. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, several feet away from their car, and hunched over a little to better see through the lowered window.
Carlos raised his hand to wave. “Uh…hi.”
“Hello there.” The woman’s face spread into a warm smile. She was pale and tired looking, and appeared to be in her early twenties. “Would you like to come inside?” Her smile widened as she caught sight of Annie in the backseat. “I see you have a little one, too.”
“Uh…actually, we were wondering if you’ve heard any—”
The woman looked down at her baby, murmuring, “Shhh…” She glanced at Carlos, her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Sorry. She can be a bit fussy.”
“It’s cool,” Carlos said, unnerved. The baby hadn’t made a noise.
The corner of the blanket tucked around the baby’s head flopped down, and Carlos was given his first look at the baby’s face. He recoiled and instantly started rolling up the window. He hadn’t heard the baby make a sound because it couldn’t make a sound.
Apparently Vanessa had caught a glimpse of the baby as well, or maybe she was just responding to Carlos’s sudden reaction, because she stepped on the gas a little too enthusiastically. The tires spun on the slick road for a second or two before catching. The car skidded a little to the side, and then they were off…away from that thing.
“Was it”—Vanessa’s eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror—“dead?” She whispered the word like it was something tainted, evil.
“Yeah…like, a lot.” Carlos looked into the side mirror, watching the woman. She was still standing on the sidewalk before the open gate, holding her dead baby, a small smile on her face. A shiver creeped up Carlos’s spine, and he felt a renewed sense of nausea. “Do you think…should we have tried to help her?” Carlos asked tentatively.
Vanessa scoffed. “That chick was crazy…”
Carlos stifled some of his rising panic and cleared his throat. “This is all crazy.” At this point, he felt like he was crazy.
Vanessa shushed Carlos, hitting his arm with the back of her hand. “Language. Annie…”
“Yeah, but look at that!” He pointed through the windshield at a thick pillar of black smoke. Originating somewhere northwest of the freeway in the heart of Yakima, it had come into view as they’d passed through the gap carved in Ahtanum Ridge by the Yakima River. “That’s in the middle of the city.” He felt the blood drain from his face. The hospital was in the middle of the city. “What if it’s—”
“Don’t say it,” Vanessa said, shaking her head. “Don’t you dare say it.”
But as Vanessa exited the abandoned highway and headed west into the equally abandoned streets of Yakima toward the hospital, their worst fears came true.
“How?” Carlos’s voice was barely a rasp as Vanessa brought the car to a halt about a block from the hospital. “How’s this possible?” he gasped, pushing the passenger door open and practically leaping out of the car. He stumbled up the street a few steps, then stopped and stared at the blackened, burning mass that had once been the hospital, the place where his mom worked. It was more smoke than flames, making Carlos think he was witnessing the tail end of whatever had happened. His mom…she’d been in there, unless…
With a renewed sense of purpose, Carlos ran back to the car. Vanessa was staring out the windshield, tears streaming down her splotchy cheeks.
“Mom must’ve gotten out,” Carlos told his sister, desperate for her to believe him. If she believed him, maybe he could, too. “She had to have…before it…she had to. We have to find her!”
Vanessa was hugging herself and rocking back and forth the faintest amount. She shook her head. “Carlos,” she said, her voice wobbling. “She was sick…”
“We got better…who’s to say she didn’t, too?”
“She would have gone to her car,” Carlos told his sister, not hearing her protests. “She could be home right now. She could have gone the back way. We wouldn’t have passed her.” He suddenly felt giddy and a little sick with nervous excitement. “We just have to look in the parking lot. If we don’t see her car, we’ll know she’s okay.”
Vanessa exhaled heavily, hope mixed with the uncertainty on her face. Part of her, even if it was a small part, believed he was right, that their mom was okay.
Until they found their mom’s sedan parked in its usual spot. Vanessa pulled up behind it, and Carlos jumped out and raced to the driver’s side door of his mom’s car, sure he would find her or some sign of her inside. He just needed some indicator that she hadn’t been in the hospital when the fire started. This close to the blackened ruins, the stench of all that was burning was overwhelming, but he couldn’t tear himself away from the driver’s side window. It was as though if he stared at it long enough, his mom would appear.
In a daze of horror and despair, he felt a tug on his arm. He let Vanessa pull him back to the car, let her push him down onto the passenger seat. She didn’t waste any time in driving away from that place, from their mom.
Shame welled within Carlos as he stared at Vanessa. He was her brother. He was supposed to be the strong one…was supposed to take care of her. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He lowered his face into his hands, and for the second time that day, he cried.
Vanessa drove home on highway 97, following a route Carlos and his family had always called “the back way.” They didn’t talk—not about the fire or their mom or anything else. Only the sound of Annie’s wails filled the car. She’d been crying hysterically in the backseat ever since they’d sped away from the hospital.
When, after minutes of coaxing on Carlos’s part, she showed no signs that her ear-piercing meltdown was winding down, he unbuckled her seatbelt and pulled her into the front seat. Hugging the little girl close and patting her back, he told his sister, “Don’t crash.”
A heart-wrenching whine escaped from Vanessa, and nodding, she wiped her cheek with the side of her thumb.
They parked in front of their house shortly after sunset and hurriedly locked themselves inside the safety of its familiar walls. Annie was asleep in Carlos’s arms, as she’d been for the last fifteen minutes. He was just setting her on the couch in the dark living room, Vanessa gathering up the blanket from the floor to settle it over the slumbering child, when he heard the ominous, metallic chk-chk.
He and Vanessa froze and exchanged a look of terror. Adrenaline flooded his bloodstream.
With the click of a light switch, the overhead light flared to life.
Carlos spun around and stared in shock at the man standing in the entrance to the hallway. It was Jesse. Carlos watched as Jesse tucked a pistol in the back waistband of his jeans, a look of relief on his brother’s face that had to mirror his own.
Unable to find any words, Carlos lurched toward his brother, embracing him with as much strength as he could muster. He released him a few seconds later, giving Vanessa a turn to greet Jesse as well.
“Didn’t you get my messages?” Jesse asked as he patted Vanessa’s back.
Carlos shook his head. The message on Vanessa’s phone might have been from him, but it didn’t matter now. “We tried you like a million times. You never answered.”
Jesse rested his chin on top of Vanessa’s head. “I was driving. Didn’t have service most of the time…” He shifted his focus to Annie, who was curled up in a ball on the couch, sound asleep. “Who’s the kid?”
“Annie,” Vanessa told him as she pulled away. She moved to the couch to sit beside the sleeping child. “We found her a few days ago. Her mom was…well, you know.”
“Yeah,” Jesse said somberly. “I know.”
Something in Carlos’s chest clenched. This reunion was about to become very depressing. “I’ve, uh, got some bad news.”
“You mean Benny? Mom told me he was sick a few days ago.” Sadness clouded his face. “I just figured, with everything…”
“That’s not all, man.” Carlos brought a hand up to rub his temples. He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to look at his brother’s face, unwilling to watch his reaction, while he told him. “We just came from the hospital.” Carlos had to fight back tears. He refused to cry in front of his brother. He was done with crying. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. “There was a fire at the hospital, and we’re pretty sure Mom was still inside…” Carlos wanted to believe there was still a chance that she’d made it out, still a chance that she’d recovered and they would see her again. He wanted to believe that…desperately.
“Jesus…” Jesse sank onto the arm of the couch. “I thought, maybe…since I survived, you all might, too.” He scrubbed his hand over his face, then started rubbing the back of his neck. “At least you guys are alright.”
“Barely,” Carlos muttered, feeling a spark of irritation at his brother. Jesse should have been there to help with all this end-of-the-world shit. “Where’ve you been?”
With a sigh, Jesse moved to the recliner opposite the couch. He told them what had happened over the past week, how when he’d been passing by Lake Tahoe on his way to meet with one of his suppliers, he’d become too ill to continue driving and pulled off into what appeared to be an empty campground at the south end of the lake. He’d awoken to find a woman—her name was Mandy—tapping on his window. She’d taken him to her one-room cabin by the lake and looked after him until he returned to health.
Jesse leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Mandy’s gathering survivors. Last night, when I left, there were already about twenty people camped out around her cabin…everyone working together, taking care of each other.” He laced his fingers together and offered a close-lipped smile to Carlos and Vanessa, who were sitting next to each other on the couch. “But I had to check on you guys and Mom, and bring you down there, you know…if you survived too.”
“Why?” Vanessa asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier just to stay here?”
Jesse’s mouth curved into a considering frown. “Easier…maybe, for now. But it’s a whole lot safer down there.
Carlos bumped his sister’s shoulder with his own. When she looked at him, her eyes full of uncertainty, he said, “I think we should stick around here for a week or two…look for Mom and stuff, just in case.” His sorrow rose, and he had to clear his throat to keep his voice steady. “Then we figure out what to do…maybe go down there? What matters is that we stick together, right?”
Vanessa looked into his eyes with such intensity that it felt like she was seeing inside him, examining his soul. Finally, she nodded. “We stick together.”
Carlos felt a tug on his opposite sleeve. He glanced down to find Annie staring up at him, bleary-eyed from crying and sleep. “I’m hungry,” she whined.
He exhaled in a weary, breathy laugh. “Of course you are.”
This concludes the first installment of The Ending Beginnings. The second novella, The Ending Beginnings: Mandy, is available here, and and third, The Ending Beginnings: Vanessa, will be released near the end of January--which is as soon as possible, we swear!
Carlos is also a supporting character in the full-length novels, After The Ending and Into The Fire.