Jake Cooper sat in his recliner with a soreness deep in his bones. He’d ran a jackhammer all day, something he had not done in years. As the owner of a small general contracting firm he often filled in – and not without some relish – when one of his essential workers failed to show. He was a man who wore many hats. But, today he’d led a wrecking crew. It was fun, but he was feeling it. He was not twenty years old anymore, that was painfully obvious.
Then, as he was clicking through the channels, something caught his eye. A news report. The flu was spreading.
The first reports, days ago, had said that it was just another in a string of pneumonia-type diseases. SARS, avian flu, H1N1. Sensationalized news reports and blathering government officials had calloused most of the country to any sense of urgency in preparations. Everyone in the world had seen a number of diseases touted as “the next super plague” in the past few years. None of them had spread very much, and those that had were responsible for only a few deaths, despite all the media hype.
But now he sat stunned as the first clear CNN reports were coming out of India. Hundreds dead. Thousands in the hospital. The day before, Nepal, and the day before that Bangladesh. It was spreading.
He sat upright and leaned forward to listen. The journalist confirmed that this was worse than had been previously reported. It was a hemorrhagic fever, a slow burning type that began with flu-like symptoms. Over the course of several days it would turn the victim’s body upon itself through something called a cytokine storm. The hosts own immune system attacked healthy cells until the victim became so weak he was unable to care of himself. The process was nasty, something called septic shock syndrome: hemorrhaging, multisystem organ failure, and cellular death. Once bedridden, the victim would then succumb to the final stage – drowning in their own blood and phlegm.
It was the killer plague the world had been expecting.
He clicked the TV off and sat in the dark silence of his home.
His wife and kids had long since gone to bed, but his mild insomnia had kept him up again. It was three in the morning. He took a drink of ice water and exhaled slowly.
He knew how the scenario would play out; he’d been trained on FEMA and CDC response when he was an emergency room manager. He knew what the TV people had said. By conservative estimates the airliners coming out of India in the past few days had carried the disease worldwide within hours. In the next few days, perhaps hours, reports would surface about cases cropping up everywhere. America already had it, that much was certain. There were probably people carrying the disease in a couple of dozen of U.S. cities right now, spreading it by coughing and shaking hands, touching doorknobs, shopping carts, you name it.
He started to panic and considered briefly that he should wake his family and drive madly into the night. He could make it to his hunting cabin in the Ozarks. It was very remote, far off the beaten path. There’d be plenty of fish in the lake and game in the nearby woods. He could live there for months, maybe years. He’d chop wood for the cabin’s little potbellied stove, and it might even be a good thing, the forced isolation in the woods, time together to get to know each other again . . . except, they’d never make it. He took another drink of water.
By the time they’d driven to the cabin everyone in the family would be exposed. He’d have to fuel up the Suburban with gas. They’d have to buy food, clothing, equipment, and carry it with them. He’d risk infection each time. There wasn’t enough room in the SUV for his whole family and all the stuff they’d need to survive the long stay in the cabin.
He stood and gathered his wallet and keys and walked through the house and down to the basement. Downstairs he rummaged around until he found the dust masks left over from a painting project. He climbed the stairs and went back to the kitchen and found the medical kit and a single pair of latex gloves. Back in his den he retrieved a revolver from the gun cabinet and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
The government would be no help either. At first sniff the government would quarantine, at the borders and probably in areas close to international airports, but this would be too slow. And so as the outbreak gathered momentum, more and more of the country would be subjected to a “shelter-in-place” plan, wherein citizens we would be ordered to stay in their homes or risk arrest and relocation. Previous warnings had mentioned lengthy quarantines, from weeks to months if necessary.
The disease, he knew, was not the only threat looming on the horizon. People were going to go crazy. The human problem was just as deadly as the disease. There’d be religious crazies in the street, gangs poaching on the weak, and then the mentally ill, unable to handle this one last blow, would simply fall apart. No one could predict how a large population would react under stress. He was taking no chances.
Like many of his neighbors, Jake had stockpiled some food for the heavy snow and ice storms, but there wasn’t enough food in the house for such lengthy quarantines. In fact, he knew there wasn’t enough food in the whole United States for that type of scenario.
Most retailers “ran lean” on stock, with no more than three to five days’ worth of supplies on hand. He’d seen the drained shelves after just the mere prediction of severe weather. Large retailers would have more in regional warehouses, of course, perhaps a thirty day supply at most. But these would have to be distributed, and riots would be likely before that could occur. When dawn came and the news spread people all over the city would panic and hit the stores, just as he was now, and by the next day there wouldn’t be a single crumb remaining for sale anywhere in the country.
He hopped into his SUV and headed down the street and out of his neighborhood. They way he figured it, he had one chance.
He made his first stop at the nearest all-night big box supermarket. He donned his mask and gloves, and strode in fast, pushing one flatbed cart and pulling another. It was mostly deserted. Jake relaxed a little. By sheer dumb luck his insomnia had given him an advantage.
The bored cashier smiled weakly and went back to her romance novel. She didn’t seem to notice his mask or bright blue gloves. He smiled and laughed to himself. She’d probably seen far stranger things while working the late shift.
He rushed straight to the staples isle. To the comforting tunes of Musak he loaded the first cart with all the rice, dry beans, and powdered milk they had. He switched, pulling the monstrous weight of the full cart, and pushing the lighter one. He next found the canned foods and loaded the second empty cart with fruit– pineapple, pears, peaches – plus all the Spam he could find. Next he loaded up on bags of sugar and salt and cases of vegetable oil. In essence, on the fly, he was creating for his family a simple yet filling ration of the type issued by the United Nations during mass hunger emergencies. He also grabbed several large bottles of vitamins. On his way to the checker he made one other purchase: several bottles of spray bleach.
He grunted as he moved the carts to the checkout line.
“It’s for our soup kitchen,” he offered. He pointed to the mask and held up his hands. “I’m allergic.”
The elderly woman at the register didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled. “That’s so sweet that you take care of the poor. Not enough people care like this these days.” She motioned at a stack of coupon papers. “If you will hand me that sale paper, I can get you a discount on some of this.”
Jake shook his head no. She shrugged and went back to checking, but never raised an eyebrow.
Just as she finished the last item and rang up the sale, the power went off. The store was pitch dark, and quiet as a tomb. Then the emergency lighting kicked on and bathed the whole building in a dim aura.
They looked at each other, and Jake produced his check book, filled it out, and handed the check to her.
“Oh, dear. What a night,” she said looking around. “I hope my cats are okay.”
“Ma’am, you take care,” he said. He walked off pushing the carts, and then stopped and walked back as a rotund office manager emerged with a flashlight.
“Lucille, you okay?” he asked with barbecue sauce on his chin.
“Oh, yes, Harold, I’m fine. I was just checking out this last customer here.”
“Alright then. You can pack up and go home. I’m going to shut the store down in a minute.” He waddled off, back to his pork ribs no doubt, Jake thought.
“You’re Lucille, right?” Jake asked.
She nodded. In the dim light of the store he could see that in days long ago she’d been a real looker. High cheek bones, slight frame, a bright, intelligent gleam in her eyes. She was waiting for him to speak, and listening intently.
“Lucille, you need to get everything you can right now and get home. Lock the doors and don’t let anyone in. There’s some bad stuff coming down the pike.”
Lucille smiled and said “Mr. Cooper, if what I think is happening is happening, there’s nothing you or I can do about it.”
She’d remembered Jake’s name from the check, and she had an inkling of what might be happening. Jake nodded in approval.
“Just the same Lucille, you need to get out of here. There’s going to be a very mean crowd coming in here shortly, whether the doors are locked or not.”
Lucille nodded and simply said “Thank you” in a soft voice as she pulled the cash drawer from the register.
Jake managed, by pulling both carts and walking backward, to make it to the Suburban. Before he started unloading the carts, he got out the bleach and disinfected his hands.
He was sweating a little after loading the truck, but he felt better. He had a purpose now, a plan. He guessed the food would last his family quite some time, maybe weeks. Long enough, perhaps, to make it through whatever might happen.
He quickly drove to the next supermarket, and the next, until when he finally returned home, his vehicle was straining under the load, every amount of space packed with food and medicines, even ammunition for his guns.
He worked fast and had the whole lot unloaded on the garage floor by the time the first rays of the sun were thinning the darkness from the skies. Before he shut the garage door he could feel something. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could feel a tension in the air. He noticed traffic was picking up earlier than normal and the main streets were already looking busy. He suspected that by noon it would be complete pandemonium.
Go to part 5 here.
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