2012: Amanda Mitchell – Outbreak

High School Prose Winner from the 2012 Issue
Amanda Mitchell

The date is December thirty-first, year 2100. Carnage. That’s all that’s left of what used to be the United Kingdom. Now it is known as Incohamentum, Latin for “starting place.” It’s gotten quiet around here; there’s no one to really talk to. Sure there are a few stragglers, I being one of them, but you don’t make friends in this day and age. You’ll lose them too quickly. People have come to realize it isn’t worth the pain. No one needs to lose any more after they’ve lost just about everything. If you know how to, finding food is easy; you just have to be careful. The Sickness has poisoned some of the game and if you eat it, you’re as good as dead in a few minutes. The Sickness started way back when–in 2015. I still remember it–the sun hot and brilliant, London full with people crowding the walk ways, the smell of warm bread making your mouth water as you pass the bakery, saying hello to the cute boy that worked next door in the arts store with his family. Everything has changed since then; so much is different. I was sixteen when the disease hit . . .

August 1, 2015

I walked up the paved end of the road, my dear friend Cassia close at my side babbling on about silly things you would hear from a teenage girl. Everyone’s face was flushed with excitement as we passed; even the usual people who acted as if you’d pissed in their coffee seemed to be gleaming with happiness. It was a naturally good day for everyone. The sun hung high above my head and I had felt its rays soak into my skin; this sensation made me tingle with giddiness.

We sat down in the corner coffee shop, Starbucks, and I got my usual frappe. The TV hoisted up on the wall blared news about “The Elixir of Eternal Life.” This was the cause of all the smiling faces, all of the buzz that filled the air around us. Some middle-aged genius had found a way of making humans live forever. As soon as you breathed in the Elixir’s gas your body would lock you into your current age, keeping you healthy and making you stronger than you could ever imagine, stopping and killing off any illness that might harm you.

Today was the day it was released in the United Kingdom,  starting with none other than London, England. “Vanessa, are you even listening to me?” I heard Cassia say, her bottom lip jutting out in a pout.

I shook my head. “Sorry, I’ve been distracted. I’m pumped for today. Sixteen forever. I mean, it’s kind of scary but I think I like it.” I curled my hands together on our little round table, my legs wrapped around my chair as I took a sip of my frappe. “Who ever knew this would be possible? The kind of impossible feat that you hear about in stories of explorers looking for the fountain of youth.” I was at the perfect age; the Elixir was available to those sixteen years and above. Your children would get it when they were that age, and then their children after that. “When did they say we had to be there?” The gas would be dispersed over the crowd in a specially built containment building where the fumes wouldn’t be able to escape into the air.

“Right about now actually,” Cassia said, flashing all thirty-two teeth at me. We paid for our drinks and headed out, our heads held high with anticipation for what lay ahead . . .

December 31, 2100

I really wish I had thought about it, thought about what could have gone wrong. There’s no such thing as a happy ending. There are happy beginnings, there are happy middles, but it’s complete bullshit to believe there would ever be that glorious ending. There’s always more to the story. There’s always the part where you die, or you and your prince are separated. That beautiful sunset never lasts forever.

August 5, 2015

There was a mob forming around the Science Facility’s gates. Some of them screaming, others falling to the ground, their bodies wracked with uncontrollable sobs. They yelled things like, “You did this to us!” and, “You killed us! We’re all doomed!” I hadn’t seen Cassia since the day after we were given the Elixir. She was probably at home with her family watching her parents rot from the outside in. In every sense, they were turning into zombies; they just weren’t biting our heads trying to eat our brains. It didn’t work like that.

The Elixir did preserve you in your current state, kept you alive through almost anything. The problem was it released a disease that first made you terribly ill, retching until you dry heaved, your eyes turning red and bulging from your skull. Then it started eating you alive, starting with your skin and working its way in, and when you should’ve died before it even got to this state, the Elixir keeps you alive through it all until it at last attacks your heart. This was announced to the town, the afternoon after, when the test animals had gone through all the symptoms, and their human test subjects began going through them as well.

It seemed to be more likely for you to catch this disease if you were older, over the age of twenty. There was no sign of it yet in the youngest to be exposed to the gas. Then again, it had only been four days. My mother died first. I wept at her bedside as she turned into a zombie and then took her last rotting breath. The howls of outrage didn’t quiet down outside; they turned into useless moans as the people soon lost their sense, their brains going numb as the disease ate at them. They soon just wandered the streets, skin hanging off of them like ragged clothing as they bumped into cars and walked  into doors.

The world was falling apart around me. Some of the people still alive burned down buildings in protest, breaking the millions of bottles of elixir in the process, and releasing the elixir into the air that surrounded us. The outside countries had trapped us in, cutting off all transportation, burning all ships and destroying all airports. They didn’t want this getting out to the rest of the world. We were trapped here until we too died. I had finally worked up the courage to leave home in September, avoiding the dead, or nearly dead on the roads, and finding my way to Cassia’s apartment. I had hopes that she was still alive.

I found her curled into a ball in the corner of her room, staring blankly at the ground, her eyes sunken into her skull. I tapped her hand. “Cassia,” I whispered, feeling my skin crawl. She didn’t respond, so I nudged her this time. She fell to the ground revealing the knife that she had shoved through her chest. I screamed and jumped back; the blood that clung to the knife was still wet. Maybe if I had been there… maybe if I had been there to stop her she would’ve been able to live on with me.

I returned home to my brother; he was twenty-one. When he died in February, I was alone…

December 31, 2100

After a year had passed, I remember that the skies had eventually turned gray—gray with smoke from burning buildings and the Elixir gas that was toxic in the air, hiding the sun. I imagine a large dark cloud could be seen enveloped over the Earth. The Elixir had made its way around the world, poisoning water and killing off entire populations. The illness that came with the eternal life was eventually just called the Sickness.

In 2016 I had joined a group of teens my age; we had started up our own government in one of the business buildings in the center of London. We dictated ourselves. It wasn’t much. Each of us had one basic responsibility–some of us hunted, some of known as Savers, collected the dead bodies, the Gatherers had the responsibility of looking for stragglers, and some of us nursed the sick.

I was one of the few that kept everything in order; my partner was James. We were at the top of our little situation. I guess you could say he was alpha and I was beta. As I said, no one let himself get close to anyone because eventually that person would die, but I broke that silent rule…

July 18, 2018

“The Savers have cleared the last of the bodies in London. They put the last load in the truck last night. All of them have been dumped at the edge. The Gatherers haven’t found anyone in a month. I’m thinking it’s about time we start moving on. We could go to the city over and make a place there, see who’s left, and start removing the dead there. If there’s no chance for survival in that place, we’ll come back. It’ll only be an hour’s drive or so.” James tapped his lip with a pencil, his dark hair ruffled and eyebrows pinched together in concentration. He had a handsome facial structure; his nose turned down to his full lips, which were pressed together into a line. He looked up at me with his brilliant blue eyes. “What do you think?” he asked, smiling when he noticed I was staring.

I swallowed. “Sounds good. If some people wish to stay behind then they may, but we need most of our people. Maybe we should send a small group as scouts; they can come get us if things seem to be alright.” James nodded in agreement, his eyes searching my face. Everyone around our little camp knew we were close. They expected us to be like a couple. We were in charge, King and Queen, Mom and Dad. As much as we denied it, we were very much a family. We were all that was left.

A few days before we left for the new city, I locked myself in my room, full with regret. I found myself wishing for the past. Eventually James came up to get me. He sat down beside me, putting his arm around me. I rested my head on his shoulder. I could feel his breath on my neck, warm and comforting. He smelled nice. He always did.

“I miss it…” I said quietly, the words just bellow a whisper. I knew he understood what I meant; there was no way he couldn’t.

“I know… so do I,” he said.

October 24, 2046

I stared at my reflection in the mirror, my skin the same, no wrinkles, no wear. Nothing has changed. It’s been thirty-one years and I’m still as I was all that time ago, at least my appearance is. I would’ve been forty-seven today. James came in, handing me a present. It was wrapped in purple with a gold bow. I looked at him with sad eyes. “Thank you. You didn’t need to do this.”

“Vanessa, shut up and open it,” he said and pushed it against my stomach. I sighed and took it from him, smiling despite myself as I opened it. I stared down at it. It was a book. It had been my favorite

before the Sickness came.

I gave him a quizzical look. “How did you know?” I asked, running my fingers over the cover.

“You told me a few years back how you used to read this all the time. It took me a while, but I found a bookstore that hadn’t been burned down and found it on the shelves. I had to dust off every single one of those stupid books to even see the titles, but it was worth it,” James said, his hands in his pocket.

I looked up and noticed just how close he was. I swallowed, feeling my skin itch with the desire to be more than what we were. “Happy birthday…” he whispered, his eyes capturing my gaze as we stood in silence for a few moments.

“James…” I began, but next thing I knew we were kissing, my first kiss in thirty-one years.

Days passed and we grew even closer. Years went by and the oldest of us started dying. The zombies returning for a few weeks before they dropped dead. We could all feel the Sickness getting closer. We realized we weren’t immune. We just had a lot more time before the disease surfaced. It was like a countdown, a clock slowly ticking away as people walked around, rotting while still alive, their skin falling from their bones…

December 31, 2100

Shannon, one of the last survivors, climbed onto the roof and sat down next to me. “Vanessa, I think you should see this.”

I didn’t respond. I just clasped my hands tighter together around my legs. I couldn’t stop thinking about James. I hoped he was in a better place. You have to believe in something beyond this when things have gone so bad, when you have lost so much.

She nudged me, trying again. “Vanessa, come on.” She sighed and slid from the roof.

I heard the thud of feet hitting frozen ground and then the tell tale footsteps that meant she was leaving. I hadn’t cried in so many years; I didn’t think it was worth it. Breathing out, I felt a tear sliding down my cheek as I continued to watch the horizon…

May 25, 2098

I didn’t want to think of the day when I would be without him. We avoided talking about it, but sometimes it came up when we were talking about the people we had lost to the Sickness. “Maria’s gone,” I would say.

“Yeah, so is Andy.” We would sit in silence for a few minutes, staring at our hands or our feet. “They’re dropping like flies,” he would say with a nervous laugh, his eyebrows pinched together.

“We’re going to need a bigger dump site soon,” I joked weakly. “They’re taking up all the space. They stink like hell.” We would be quiet for a few more moments, our fingers interlaced as we tried to

avoid the coming topic.

“What age is it down to?” he would ask, his teeth clenched.

“Eighteen,” I said, feeling bile rise in my throat. He stopped aging  at seventeen; his time was close and I was horrified.

“How slow are the deaths going?” The younger the age, the less people got sick at the same time. It took a while for them all to die off before the Sickness moved onto the next age group.

“Pretty slow, but this group is just about finished. There’s only a good couple hundred of us left. It was about 500 last year.” I avoided his gaze, chewing my lip, uncomfortable with the conversation.

“Seventeen is next. I’m estimating this group is going to start . . . Vanessa when I die—”

I cut him off. “Please stop!” I squeaked, feeling my throat close up.

“It’s going to happen soon. We can’t escape it. There’s not much time left. We’ve lived this long and we should be happy that we got to be together for this amount of time. I didn’t think we’d still be alive,” he said, shaking his head, and squeezing my hand tighter while leaning in to kiss my cheek. “I love you, Vanessa.”

I felt my cheeks flush and my heart skip a beat. We’d said it before but this time I felt it meant more. “I love you too, James.” I kissed him; it was bittersweet. I was never one for goodbyes.

We got to spend a few more weeks together, but by July he was heaving, and coughing up blood, the signs that screamed to me what was beginning. I sat by his bedside as he writhed in pain. I watched as his skin shredded and fell off in clumps, his fingers curling into unusable claws, and his body turning a sickly green as his limbs starting to fall from him. He lost all of his hair, his eyes sinking into his skull. He used to utter my name, but his tongue eventually became useless and all he could do was moan. A good month later, he suffered through his last breath, his chest rising once before he gasped and went still. His eyes closed and his body stinking the room up. I didn’t cry then; I was too afraid. I wouldn’t let them take his body and dump it in the fill. I left it there. When we left the town, I still hadn’t  moved it…

December 31, 2100

Shannon returned later that day with a few others. “Come on, Vanessa! You really need to see this!”

I had stopped caring. I had just given up. I found no reason for living anymore in this world of eternal gray depression. “Vanessa! Move your butt. This is really important. It’s the start. Things are going to be all right. Would you just look?”

They were obviously getting frustrated, so I allowed them to pull me off the roof of the house. We walked down the street. I kept my hands in my pockets and my head down. We stopped at the beach, the waves licking over the sand. “Well, what is it?” I asked, my voice low and hushed as I started sinking to the ground.

Shannon sighed and lifted my head, pointing to the shore. “Look.” I stared at the horizon, the dark blue of night glinting through the gray. I could see sky, and stars. It had been years since I’d seen it, and it was so beautiful. The skies were clearing which meant the Elixir gas was going away. Shannon nudged me and I looked to the right. A little camp was set up and a few people in gas masks came out, walking over. Shannon spoke. “This is her,” she said, motioning to me.

I think one of them smiled under his mask. “We have the cure!

Everything is going to be okay.”

January 1, 2101

Death is cruel. He likes to play with his toys and torture them before throwing them away when they got old. Life is a game, and you only have one chance to win. When you finally reach the finish line, you are ready to go, and sometimes you are simply released like a bird from its cage. I closed my eyes and heard his voice call to me. I followed it, drifting away from the world, the sand soft against my cheek as the sun began to rise over the ocean, warming my skin in a final goodbye. It was a new year, and a new beginning. I always hated goodbye… it would be nice to say hello.

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