The third of six The Ending Series prequel novellas.
A virus changed everything. This is how it began.
One week. That's how long it took for Vanessa's world to fall apart, for the outbreak to kill billions of people, and for the survivors to divide into two groups--the sane, and the insane. One week is how long it took for Vanessa to start hearing the voices. Things, she's learning, can always get worse.
The Ending Beginnings:
I - Carlos
II - Mandy
III - Vanessa
IV - Jake (April 2014)
V - Clara (May 2014)
VI - Jake & Clara (June 2014)
…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…
The President’s broadcast continued to replay in Vanessa’s head as she stared out her living room window, her legs folded beneath her. It had been six days since she’d first heard it…six days since her older brother, Jesse, had returned…six days since she’d discovered the devastating fate of the hospital where their mom had been working when the virus claimed her; it was now little more than a smoldering husk. Vanessa had lost count of how many times she’d listened to the broadcast, but it had been enough that she didn’t even need the radio to hear it anymore. At the moment, the words were so vivid, so clear, that she could almost believe she really was hearing them.
She glanced back at the dining room table, where the radio sat, and confirmed that it was turned off. The President’s voice faded away, and Vanessa breathed out heavily. It had just been her imagination. With a shake of her head and a soft laugh, she settled back on her heels and returned her attention to the window.
You’re lying to yourself, chica—you did hear it…
Vanessa started and spun around on her knees so she could see the rest of the room. That voice. She couldn’t have heard that voice. It was impossible. Rosie…she was dead…and had been for a week.
Vanessa scanned the living room, her eyes moving from the couch to the hallway and from the kitchen to the dining room. Nobody was there. Annie, the little girl she and her younger brother, Carlos, had found in a house alone with her dead grandmother a week ago, was still napping in Vanessa’s bedroom. Carlos and Jesse were up in Yakima, searching around the hospital for any sign of their mom; though they assumed the worst, they still didn’t know for sure if she’d perished in the hospital, either from the virus or from the fire. Vanessa wasn’t expecting them back for another hour or two.
You’re all alone. Like just you could protect Annie? You’re helpless without your brothers, pendeja…
Slowly, Vanessa stood and took a few steps toward the end table beside the couch, where she’d set Jesse’s pistol just after her brothers had left. The moment her fingers curled around the cold metal grip, she felt some of her tension ease. With trembling arms, she raised the gun so it was aimed directly in front of her.
“Rosie?” Terror constricted her throat, making her voice raspy.
You and Annie should have gone with them, you know? If something happens to them—if they don’t come back…you know you can’t protect her on your own…
“Stop it!” Vanessa shrieked. Her hands started shaking so intensely that the gun was making a faint clacking noise. “You’re dead!”
Am I? That’s right—Carlos stuck me in the shed. But…you’re hearing me right now. Maybe you should make sure I’m still there…
Doubt, followed closely by the bone-deep chill of fear, washed through Vanessa. But…it couldn’t be Rosie. There had to be somebody else in the house, playing a trick on her.
She eased her way across the room toward the hallway that lead to the bedrooms. When she reached the doorway to her room and peeked inside, she found Annie snuggled under the covers on the bed, fast asleep. To Vanessa’s ears, her own heartbeat sounded like the relentless beating of a tribal drum as she checked the two other bedrooms, the bathroom, and finally, the kitchen. Empty, all of them.
Do you think I’m, like, a zombie? Or a ghost? Or you could just be crazy, you know…
Vanessa shook her head as though Rosie’s voice were an annoying fly that could be shooed away with a sharp movement. There had to be a logical explanation; one that didn’t involve walking corpses, being haunted, or insanity. There was one guaranteed way to eliminate the first option.
Swallowing hard, Vanessa adjusted her grip on the gun. It was still extended in front of her, like its presence alone would repel any danger. Just point it and shoot; don’t think too hard. That’s what Jesse had told her before he and Carlos left that morning. Her palms were sweaty, but her grip felt solid. She could protect Annie. She could.
Vanessa took a deep breath, and on her exhale, she started toward the sliding door in the dining room. Beyond it lay the patio and backyard…and the shed, Rosie’s tomb.
She slipped her feet into a pair of men’s snow boots that were sitting beside the door but didn’t bother with searching for her jacket, and when she slid the door open, the icy air buffeted her skin. With another deep breath, she stepped out onto the snow-covered patio. She crunched her way to the yard easily enough, but with each step closer to the shed, fear eroded more and more of her resolve. Rosie’s body had to be out there. It just had to be. Bodies didn’t simply get up and walk away.
And dead people don’t talk, right?
“Shut up!” Part of Vanessa hoped the body wasn’t there. Part of her hoped they’d been wrong, that Rosie hadn’t actually been dead and now she was better. It was the only reasonable explanation.
Is it? ‘Cause I’ve been in the shed for days. It’s like ten degrees at night…
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Vanessa hissed.
I’m dead, and you know it. Maybe if you hadn’t abandoned me…
Vanessa reached the shed and tucked her hand into her sleeve before grasping the frozen, metal handle. “You were sick…”
So was Carlos, but he survived…‘cause you took better care of him.
“That’s not fair! I was sick, too!” Vanessa wasn’t sure why she was responding to the voice, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. It felt natural. When someone spoke to her, it was her general habit to respond. Except there wasn’t actually anyone else there to respond to.
And now you’re not, and neither is Carlos. Did you want me to die? Did you hate me that much? Carlos really cared about me, you know. Is that why you did this to me?
“No!” Vanessa twisted the handle and yanked the door open. “I didn’t—”
Her eyes landed on the shed floor, and then she frantically scanned the rest of the shed. It looked as it always did in the winter—gardening tools tidily organized along the back wall, plastic and ceramic pots arranged on the shelves on the left side, and two snow shovels propped up against the right wall near the door. And no blanket-wrapped body. There wasn’t even a blanket.
That’s odd, huh? And now Annie’s all alone inside. Unless, you know, I’m in there with her…
“Oh God, no,” Vanessa whispered. Stomach twisting, she rushed back across the yard and into the house, not stopping until she reached her bedroom. Her empty bedroom. “Oh my God…ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod…”
At feeling something touch her hip, Vanessa screamed. She spun around and lurched backward into the room, tripping over the too-large boots that were still on her feet. The gun slipped from her grasp as she landed on the carpet. It bounced once, barely, and skittered under the edge of the bed.
“Nessa?” Annie said. “You were gone. Where’d you go?”
Breathing hard, Vanessa rolled onto her back and raised her head so she could see the little girl standing in the doorway. Annie’s blonde hair was mussed from sleep, and she was missing a sock, but other than that, she looked fine. Vanessa wasn’t sure what state she’d expected to find the little girl in, but she’d been so sure it would be horrendous and would involve a no-longer-deceased Rosie. Yet here Annie was, absolutely fine.
Vanessa closed her eyes for a moment. Annie was okay. Rosie wasn’t here. Rosie was gone—somewhere—but not here. Surprising herself, Vanessa started to laugh. It was a shrill, somewhat hysterical sound. Remotely, she felt Annie plop down on the floor by her hip.
Vanessa knew she was being ridiculous. One of her brothers must have moved the body. Rosie’s voice was all in her head. She might be losing her mind, but at least it was unlikely that there was a dead Rosie shambling around, searching for little girls to snack on.
“Nessa?” Annie tugged on the hem of Vanessa’s sweatshirt. “Nessa?”
Vanessa’s laughter quickly died out as she sat up and looked at Annie. “Sorry, sweetie. What’s up?”
Vanessa cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry—what?”
Annie blinked several times. “The voices said that somebody’s coming.”
Vanessa was momentarily stunned. Seconds passed, then she reached for the little girl, grasping her shoulders gently. “What voices? What did they say?” She sounded eager, insistent. What would it mean if Annie had heard Rosie too?
Annie shrugged. “Lots of things.”
Someone started pounding on the front door.Vanessa’s heart rate doubled, and slowly, she registered what Annie said “the voices” had told her: somebody’s coming.
Vanessa sucked in a breath. “You knew. How—” She shook her head. There was no time. She scrambled closer to the bed, reaching for the gun, then turned back to Annie. “Who is it? Do you know that, too? Is it Carlos and Jesse? My mom?”
Eyes wide, Annie shook her head.
The pounding on the door suddenly stopped, and Vanessa’s blood seemed to turn to ice. Would whoever it was go around to the back of the house? Had she shut the sliding door? She’d been so panicked when she’d been rushing back into the house to check on Annie…she couldn’t remember.
Don’t think so…
“Shit. Shit. Shit!” Vanessa hissed, cursing both her stupidity and the return of Rosie’s haunting voice. She squeezed Annie’s shoulders. “Stay here. Do not come out unless I tell you to, okay?” She looked into Annie’s bright blue eyes and waited for the little girl to nod. Her face mirrored Vanessa’s own terrified expression, but there was nothing Vanessa could do to comfort her. “Not a peep,” Vanessa said before standing and heading for the bedroom door. Once she was standing in the hallway, she shut the door as quietly as possible, took a deep breath, and listened.
Another breath. No noises.
Another breath. Nothing.
And heard the floor creak in the dining room. Someone else was in the house.