The fine people of Shadow Lakes Village watched the apocalypse take place on our televisions. When people started talking about the new Plague, we held a neighborhood fund raiser and sent $50,000 to the Greater Sacramento Red Cross.
Civilization crumbled around us, but we were OK. That Plague was, after all, on the other side of the fifteen-foot wall surrounding our community of wealthy families, clean streets, manicured lawns, and two story homes all in the same neighborhood association approved color palette.
A wall, a gate house with a guard, and strong faith, bought our safety. The Plague was for less affluent people. We prayed for the souls of the sick, and kept our distance.
My neighbors begged me to stay at home, but as the Regional Senior Vice President of Global Nanologies Unlimited I had a billion-dollar division under my supervision. Our biggest project yet, developing BioBeds integrated with medical replication devices, would net trillions. I tried to find patience, but I was admittedly bothered when I was the only one in the office that last day.
The Emergency Broadcast Network provided the emergency quarantine orders around noon: All civilians are ordered to return to their homes by sundown, and remain there until the all clear is given. Violators of this order will be shot on sight.
That was it. As a law abiding man, I prepared to leave the office as soon as I packed my brief case. A sense of melancholy passed through me. I believed I would be back in a few days, once the authorities sorted everything out.
The parking lot was deserted. I drove to work that morning, but sometime that morning the e roads stopped functioning. I had no choice but to walk the 10 miles home.
Downtown Sacramento changed in the hours I worked that day. When I arrived in the office, things were for the most part normal. No commute to speak of, and very limited pedestrians, but otherwise normal. As I walked home, I was disheartened to see the worst in people already. Glass covered the sidewalks and streets. Cars, deserted when the e roads stopped, were left in the middle of the road. I saw trash in the streets, stores with broken windows and cleared shelves.
Worse though was the people. Some, like me walked with purpose to get somewhere. Others ran here and there, breaking into stores, rummaging through cars. Screams wafted out from windows or darkened alleys. I didn’t know if they were terror or pain and I was afraid to find out.
Fear. It’s funny how differently I see fear now. That day, I was a pudgy, scared little man who thought he was bigger than he was. A stupid man who thought he’d go back to the office and make money and sell replicators and never see blood or death or sickness. I thought I’d never see a world where God would allow men to become red-eyed demons.
Fear drove me to cross the street and look down at the sidewalk as a group of people ran out of the deli I often bought my lunch from carrying armfuls of salami and bread. Once out of sight, habit pulled my phone to my ear to call 9-1-1, but the phones were still down.
A few blocks later a homeless man lay dead on the corner. His skin covered with black lines, a plague symptom according to the news. Fear led me to cross the street again, not wanting to get too close.
Fear pressed me against a dirty wall in a breezeway as mob of young people ran down the street – to what end I had no idea. The screamed and hollered, shooting guns into the air, hitting everything they passed with bats and sticks. My pounding heart nearly gave me away. Thankfully the mob passed without incident.
Fear soiled my pants when I turned a corner and ran into a gun pointed at my head.
“Your wallet and your bag, asshole.”
“Language,” I whispered as I reached into my breast pocket.
“Hands up!” Spittle leapt out of his mouth as he spoke. He blinked his bloodshot eyes rapidly, and dark lines ran along his face and neck.
“My wallet is in my breast pocket.” I imagined my voice sounding calm, but I felt my Adams apple vibrate in an unusual way. You can have it, just please let me go.”
He reached into my pocket to take my wallet. I turned my head, squeezed my eyes closed, and held my breath. Until that moment, I’d only seen victims from a distance or on the television. I was more afraid of his sickness than his gun.
Fear told me to run the rest of the way home, but my lungs seemed to catch fire after one block. Fitness had never been a priority in my life.
“Oh, thank you God.” I collapsed to my hands and knees in the middle of the street as Toni and Stephen Messerly closed the entrance gate to Shadow Lakes Village behind me. I imagined fear slinking away as I embraced the safety of my neighborhood. But, even then, I think I knew better. Fear was a part of me. It always had been.
“You’re safe now, my friend. You’re safe,” Toni said kindly.
A few hours later I sat in a lawn chair with a glass of ice water with a lemon slice, trying to recover from my harrowing ordeal and enjoy the Shadow Lakes Village Quarantine Block Party.
Mary made her famous Waldorf Salad, Betty made Peach Margaritas, Henry and Greg strung fairy lights across the street from one house to the other for mood lighting. Billy drank more beer than he should have. Barbecues were smoking, a bike parade, flag football in the street, outdoor movies, and nighttime hide and seek. Great fun for all while we waited out a few dark days before we went back to our normal lives.
“Truly excellent salad, Mary!” Henry, an attorney with a prestigious firm, said as Mary waddled by. “You look like that baby will fall out any day now.”
“Believe it or not,” Mary said playfully, “she’s not due for another month!”
Mary was a beautiful woman with shoulder length blond hair, pretty brown eyes, and a warm and genuine smile. I’d known her and her husband Dale – a senior administrator with the Department of Homeland Security – since they bought their home seven years ago when she was pregnant with their first son. They had another boy three years later. She once again glowed with pregnancy, this time a girl.
Dale was a lucky man.
“Glad you made it home, Bradley. We were worried about you,” she said.
“Truth be told, it’s hairy out there. Not to alarm you, but the streets are a mess.” I lowered my voice, but kept my description light. “A man robbed me at gun point! I couldn’t even call the authorities, as you know the phones are all dead.”
I didn’t tell her about the Plague victim, or about the other horrors I saw. Or about how I had to change my pants when I got home.
“How horrible for you! I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.” Mary was sweet that way. “You haven’t heard from Jenny, then?”
I shook my head. My wife, Jenny, left when the Plague first started. I told my neighbors she went to stay with her mother in Southern California. But the truth was, and I struggled to admit this to even myself, that she ran off with her lover.
I thought I’d married a Godly woman. Turns out I was wrong about many things.
“Well, I’m sure she’s fine. You’ll hear from her as soon as the lines are back up.”
I sincerely hoped not and prayed that God would forgive me for such thoughts.
I clinked my fork on my glass of lemon water.
“Excuse me! Everyone, may I have your attention, please?” I paused, waiting for my neighbors to shift their attention. “I want to thank everyone who pitched in for our gathering here. We are blessed to live in a community that can come together even in these challenging times, aren’t we?” My neighbors applauded politely.
“I want to thank Steve and Toni Messerly for guarding the gate this evening. We’ll be sure to save them some food. I trust our regular guard service will be back in short order.
“Also, while I’m sorry to add a somber note to our evening, I do think it would be appropriate to recognize our neighbors and loved ones who aren’t with us now. The Jimenez family, left for the hospital yesterday, their boy was ill, but I’m sure he’s on the mend now.”
I looked at our band of children playing blissfully in the next yard. Mary’s boys had dark circles under their eyes, but they ran around with the rest of the children. Jenny and I never had children. She blamed me though the doctors said there was nothing wrong with either of us. Even so, I had hope that our neighborhood kids would be fine.
“Veronica sadly passed this morning, Joe and Mike passed the day before. Jim and Sue went to the hospital with their little one. Many of our other neighbors left when all of this started. So even here in our blessed little community we are not free from the horrors plaguing our world right now. Let’s have a moment of prayer and silence, for those we’ve lost, those whose fates are unknown to us, and that the brave men and woman of the American Military continue to protect us. May God see us all safely through these dark days.”
Everyone bowed their heads, I peeped just to make sure.
I planned to wait another few seconds and then resume the party. But before I could, a gun shot rang through the neighborhood. The sound clearly came from one of the old fashioned guns that cracked the air and sent shock waves through my bones rather than one of the new laser guns like the military had.
“Everyone stay calm. I’m sure it’s nothing. Dale and I will go see what happened.” I made eye contact with Dale, hoping he would just come along. He was a big, beefy, authoritative fellow, who could be intimidating if needed.
Dale jogged to the gate, I followed along as fast as I could. My legs were sore and my feet blistered from my walk home that afternoon. While I walked I wondered if the monster who robbed me followed me home.
Toni, a petite red-head with a diamond that spoke of her husband’s lucrative position in a law firm, sat in the middle of the street with her head in her hands. Her husband, Stephen, a much bigger red-head, stood next to her with his mouth hanging open. A dead man lay in front of the gate.
“Steve! What happened?” I asked, panting from the fast walk and the shock of seeing a dead man inside the gate.
“He jumped the gate. We told him to stop. But he said he was gonna take what he wanted. We begged him to stop. I swear guys, we told him to stop.”
“You shot him?” I said a silent prayer for forgiveness.
“Well, Toni did. She’s the one who knows how to shoot.”
While we spoke Dale kicked the dead man over onto his back. I thanked God he wasn’t the same man who robbed me.
“I can’t believe this.” Again my dead phone found its way to my ear. “We need to…to…move him,” I said hoping no one noticed as I put my phone back in my pocket.
“No,” Dale spoke up for the first time. “We leave him there. A message.”
“Dale, I hardly think…”
He didn’t wait to hear what I thought; he turned and walked back to the party.