Chapter Fourteen

Posted: December 8, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
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     Vinnie was apoplectic.

     Perched on the arm of her sister’s sofa, Maddie watched him pace. He strode from one end of the living room to the other, muttering to himself, occasionally yanking a hand back through his hair so hard that she winced in sympathy.

     He hadn’t spoken since they’d discovered that Caleb, along with the car, had disappeared. He’d followed them up the stairs to Jessie’s apartment, eyes smoldering, unaffected by Jessie’s inane chatter. She hadn’t noticed the change in his demeanor, nor seemed to register the loss of their only way out of the city; she’d remembered on the way in that she had “Really, totally awesome danish” somewhere in the kitchen, and all of her inebriated energy had been focused on getting up the stairs and to her pastry stash. She’d squawked with indignation when Maddie had steered her immediately into the bedroom upon entry.

     “Quiet,” Maddie had hissed, closing the door quickly. “Shut up about the fucking danish for a minute.”

     “But I’m hungry!” Jessie had whined. She’d flopped onto the bed, full of drama. “I haven’t eaten all day!”

     “Then I guess you’re going to be pretty sick later.” Maddie had shaken her head, disgusted. Leave it to Jessie to down a gallon of alcohol on an empty stomach. Checking her watch, she’d reasoned they probably had half an hour before it caught up with her and Jessie passed out; car or no car, they weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Not if they wanted to avoid traveling in a cloud of tequila sickness. “Just stay here,” she’d told her sister, grabbing her by the ankles and hoisting the rest of her up on to the bed.

     She’d slipped into the bathroom, listening to Jessie’s continued whining with half an ear, and filled the rinse cup with water. When she came back out she’d seen that Jessie had wriggled herself into a seated position on the bed, reclined back on the pillows, and had nodded with satisfaction. “Drink this,” she’d ordered. “All of it. Try not to puke. I’ll be back in a minute.”

     That had been an hour ago. She’d peeked in on Jessie twice since then, finding her snoring loudly in the bed, and then returned to her place on the couch.

     She wanted to do something, say something, anything that would make him stop pacing and mumbling. She’d already suggested calling the police, to report the car as stolen; he’d glared at her for just a moment, hand going reflexively to the waist of his jeans, before he’d resumed ignoring her in favor of his temper tantrum. She’d thought of the gun, transferred to the glove box, and wondered if it was unregistered. She’d been so out of it that morning, she hadn’t even noticed how he’d explained his possession of it to the police. Maybe he’d distracted them from the topic. There’d been a lot of other things to talk about.

     Was that really this morning? She felt like she’d lived a week in the time since she’d woken up.

     Maybe turning on the television would snap him out of it. She’d waited, mostly because she wasn’t entirely sure where the remote was, but enough was enough. He might be content to talk to himself all night, but she wanted to know what the hell was going on.

     Wrinkling her nose, she started sifting through the clutter on Jessie’s coffee table. Old magazines, empty cigarette packs, something that looked suspiciously like a roach clip (I didn’t see that, I didn’t see that), candy bar wrappers, old tissues – Maddie wondered if her sister ever threw anything away. Not finding what she wanted in the detritus, she turned to the sofa, thinking maybe the remote had been stuffed behind one of the pillows or down in the cushions. That was where hers always ended up, after all.

     “Aha!” She blew couch crumbs off the buttons and turned, holding it up triumphantly. When Vinnie continued to ignore her, she shrugged and sat back down, turning on the television. She clicked away quickly from whatever trashy reality station Jessie had last watched and found the news. What she saw took her breath away.

     Jessie, or rather Roy, had been right. Chopper cameras showed the quarantine blockades, barricades erected in front of both bridges leading out of the city. Armed soldiers stood in front, positioned behind short wire fencing that had clearly been thrown up to keep the masses of people from rushing at them. The shot lingered over those crowded on the other side of the fence, desperation visible even on faces obscured by the ubiquitous cotton masks. The fence trembled with the force of their shaking; Maddie wondered how long it would hold up to the onslaught.

     The shot switched to a grainy on-the-ground camera, positioned on the civilian side of the fence; text at the bottom of the screen indicated it was amateur footage. “Return to your homes.” A uniformed man stood a few feet away, shouting at the crowd through a megaphone. “This is now military property; trespassers will be arrested. Return to your homes. You are under quarantine. Trespassers will be arrested. Return to you-”

     A rock sailed into view from off-camera, missing the man by a wide margin. The screams around the camera operator intensified, and the footage grew shakier as he was jostled by more people streaming toward the front of the fence. Another rock was lobbed, followed by a bottle. As the soldiers came forward, weapons drawn, the footage was quickly cut off and the scene returned to the newsroom.

     “Well, that was…” The anchorwoman cleared her throat nervously, clearly unsettled. “As we said, that was video taken just 20 minutes ago, at the Chesterfield Bridge, where a military blockade has come under attack. We have no word yet as to the status of that blockade. City officials have advised that a statement from the mayor will be released sometime in the next hour, and that citizens are reminded to stay in their homes and away from the quarantine barricades.”

     “For those of you just tuning in, a quarantine has been instituted for the city and surrounding areas, including Triton, Mayfield and Carrington. Additional areas may be quarantined upon assessment by the CDC and the Department of Health. Citizens inside the quarantined areas are advised that there will be no incoming or outgoing traffic for the duration of the quarantine, which at this time is unknown. The CDC is searching for a Z4N2 vaccine, which has thus far resulted in 150,000 hospitalizations in the city itself, and 100,000 deaths. Emergency medical facilities have been erected at Bayer Stadium, to handle overflow from local emergency rooms. Citizens are advised, in lieu of a vaccine, to procure a flu shot as soon as possible, wear masks in public and avoid being in crowded areas until further notice.”

     The anchorwoman paused, taking a shaky breath before she continued. “Officials don’t yet know how Z4N2 is spread, nor have they provided a timeline for the infection. However, it is known at this time that Z4N2-” Here she cut off, looking away from the camera incredulously. “Is that right?” she asked someone off-screen. “We have confirmation on that?” The answer came, unintelligible, and she closed her eyes. Maddie thought the woman was going to begin crying, live on television. When she opened them again, the fear on her face sent a shiver down Maddie’s spine. “It is known at this time,” the woman said, her voice unsteady, “That Z4N2 has a one hundred percent mortality rate.”

     She looked off to the side again and started to speak, but before she could the picture cut out and the network went to commercials. Maddie muted the volume and turned to look at Vinnie, who had finally stopped pacing.

     “Z4N2,” he said flatly. “That’s clever.”

     At that, Maddie exploded. “Will you stop?” she screamed. “Did you see those people? Those soldiers with their guns? People are dying. What’s wrong with you?”

     He stared at her, unmoved. “Do you know the last time the government quarantined a city?”

     “What?” She blinked, thrown off. “No.”

     “1919. Spanish Flu. They didn’t even quarantine for SARS. Or H1N1. Why do you think they’re doing it now?”

     “Uh, because this is dangerous? More dangerous than the others were?”

     He shook his head. “Sure. That’s why they’re keeping people in with guns.”

     She threw up her hands, beyond patience. “Fine. You’re right. They’re keeping people in because they’re going to eat each other.”

     “And infect each other,” he said. “You know that. What do you think killed your friends? Rabies?”

     Maddie glared at him. “Fuck you,” she said. Rising, she strode across the room, toward the little balcony off her sister’s kitchen. Yanking hard, forcing the seldom-used door open, she stepped outside and breathed deep. The fresh, cold air was a welcome relief. She sat gingerly in an old metal chair and leaned back, focusing on the night sky. She wished she could clear her mind of the images she’d just seen, the sight of all of those people clinging to the fence, begging to be let through. She wondered how many of them were still there, or had been arrested. Or shot. She didn’t know much about the military, but she suspected throwing things at them wasn’t handled lightly.

     She didn’t know how long she sat there before he came out, stepping quietly onto the deck. He leaned against the railing, not looking at her.

     “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I broke our deal. I shouldn’t have said that.”

     She shook her head. “It’s not about the deal.” She kept her eyes on the stars. “They’re dead. He’s dead.”

     “Jack?”

     “Yeah.” She thought for a moment. “I was there, you know. Right before he died. He wasn’t right. He wasn’t…himself.” She laughed suddenly, filled with bitterness. “Whoever that was. I thought I knew.”

     Reaching into his pocket, Vinnie pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “I found these, in the kitchen. Will she care?” When Maddie shrugged, he shook one out and lit it, taking a long drag. He stared at the glowing tip for a moment before asking, “Do you miss him?”

     Maddie was surprised by the question. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Yes. And no. We were together a long time. I loved him. But it wasn’t…I guess it wasn’t real. I have no idea how long he was sleeping with her.” She chewed her lip. “I miss who I thought he was.”

     “He was a dick,” Vinnie said.

     She sighed. “Yeah. I guess he was.” She rolled her head to the side, watching him smoke. She couldn’t see his face in the darkness, only the glow of the cigarette as it moved toward his mouth and then away. “If you’re right,” she said quietly, “And I mean big, big if. But if you’re right…”

     “Then he’s one too,” Vinnie finished for her.

     “Right.” She swallowed hard. “Bill, and Chrissy. They were my friends. But he was…everything. And I can’t-” She stopped suddenly, afraid she was going to cry. “I can’t think about that. I won’t.”

     He was silent. After a moment he took a last drag, then flicked the butt over the railing, down to the street below. Before going in he paused, turning his head slightly but still not looking at her.

     “You won’t have the luxury of not thinking about it forever.”

     Sitting alone in the dark, she shivered.

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