Coughing. Coughing from everywhere. At first it was just another sound, a sound people were used to hearing anyway. But then we realized there was too much of it. Flu season was starting too early and lasting too long, and then the CDC revealed the truth: This strain was different, and it was going away any time soon.
Brain opened his book on the technology of ancient cultures and heard it. Someone was coughing behind him. He tried to ignore it as he found his place again. He was in the library so these kinds of sounds were normal, but then it happened again from another place in the room. It was a chorus of coughs, and while Brain didn't want to check out this book for a third time, he knew it would be the only way he could read in peace.
Brain thought about how much coughing he'd heard recently as he walked home with his book tucked under his arm. There hadn't been many at school, but that was because parents were keeping their kids at home. Jenna missed a week of class, Maria took a four-day weekend, and Buster had been out for over a week with an illness Mr. Ratburn wouldn't identify.
As Brain stepped into the silence of his room and shut the door, he tried to think back to the night before. His mother was using paper cutouts to try out new designs on the coffee table while his father listened to the news and flipped through the newspaper. Brain sat in his favorite chair nearby reading his textbook so he could do his social studies homework later that evening. He tried to think of the top stories, and then he remembered it:
"Breaking news from the Center of Disease Control: Elwood City has just been added to the list of over a dozen U.S. cities with a major flu outbreak. Hundreds of cases of flu have been reported to doctors and hospitals in the Elwood City area, and almost a thousand have been reported in Metropolis. The CDC has confirmed this is a wide-spread outbreak from the same strain, a strain not covered by this year's flu vaccine. Local officials report that most citizens have not received this year's vaccine yet as it has not been widely available, and despite this report, officials beg locals in the most at-risk age classes to get their vaccines anyway despite this information."
Brain placed his book on his desk and slid over to his computer in his rolling chair. He found a national article concerning the outbreak and looked at the information: This strain of flu was first reported in the New York City area, where a school, P.S. 865, was closed down for two weeks for a deep clean after seventy-five percent of the student body was infected. This group also had the first casualty from the virus, a seven-year-old special needs student who developed pneumonia from his flu symptoms and died eight days later in a local New York City hospital.
The next reports came from Washington D.C., and CDC officials chalked that up to a traveling parent of one of the P.S. 865 students visiting the city with the virus on his clothes. Several staff members at an attorney's office got sick, and then eighty more developed symptoms as those people interacted with their world. Travel sent the illness to San Francisco, Bismarck, Santa Fe, and Salt Lake City, and now more travel had sent the illness as far away as Beijing, London, and several European cities Brain couldn't even pronounce.
Brain nodded at the information as he recalled previous outbreaks. Viruses traveled easily, but in first world countries, they rarely caused much of a problem. At-risk groups—babies, the elderly, and other immunocompromised individuals—were the only ones who ever died from the illness using modern medicine. Now that health care was readily available, people in the first world almost didn't have a chance to die as long as they were proactive about their health and sought out treatment.
But another story made Brain's mouth go dry: There were cases showing up in Africa and in poorer parts of Latin America. That was a problem as those areas were considered to be "developing," meaning health care was sparse, even among the rich. Medicines were ineffective due to counterfeits slipping into the supplies, and hospitals were ill-equipped to handle much more than pregnant mothers delivering health babies and people with bumps and bruises. Anything beyond that—dehydration, severely broken bones, and intense flu viruses—would overwhelm what little of a health care system they had.
The CDC was worried as well, and they were trying to get money and resources poured into those areas, but the outbreak wasn't wide spread. People weren't going to donate over a few dozen cases. No, it would take much more than that—dozens of more cases and plenty more death.
Brain was stone-faced at breakfast. His father was reading a morning weekend edition of the local paper across from him. The headline was alarming: COLUMBIAN AMBASSADOR DIES FROM INFLUENZA-LIKE SYMPTOMS. He couldn't see more of the article itself, but that told him everything he needed to know. An important official from Columbia had succumbed to a flu-like illness, and Brain was sure the CDC would discover it was the same strain spreading around the United States.
But Columbia was only partly developed, and it was sad for Brain to realize a top political figure had fallen to the disease. If he, a protected official, could fall to the disease, how many every day citizens without the resources he had would fall victim to the disease? Brain didn't want to think about the numbers, but the numbers came anyway—the population of Columbia he'd memorized for a geography exam's extra credit, the exponential equation of how fast a virus like influenza could spread, and the number that came when you combined these two numbers. Brain wasn't sure, but he figured it was a matter of a week, possibly ten days, before an entire country the size of Columbia would fall ill to the disease, and many of those people would die.
"Brain? Are you okay?" Mrs. Powers asked, eying her pale son with a look of grave concern. Brain sat there, frozen, as he eyed the headline. Mrs. Powers leaned to get a better view of where his eyes were fixed. She exhaled when she saw it, "Yes that is a worrying headline. He was here in the U.S. at the time and hadn't been home in months, but they're worried his staff may have gone back home with infected materials."
"He was here when he died?" Brain asked, his mind erasing his equations and the fear from their answers in one swoop.
Mr. Powers nodded, "Yes, son, he was in a Washington D.C. hospital the entire time. His publicist and public spokesperson said he had been ill already from cancer treatments when he picked up the illness. His immune system was compromised, and unfortunately his death was quick."
"But he was never in Columbia," Brain muttered, looking up to his parents, "Are the U.S. deaths still only people like him who had compromised immune systems?"
Mrs. Powers laughed, "Son, I've been too concerned with the business to even think about the news, and your father would've told me if it was really important. I doubt it'll be anything major. You'll see," she said, her husband nodding beside him with a sympathetic smile.
But Brain knew this wasn't it. After breakfast he went to his room, and sure enough, he saw a story out of Sierra Leone about a flu outbreak there. Ten deaths a day per hospital were being reported, and they were worried about the population because of the recent Ebola outbreak. Hundreds upon thousands died during that outbreak, and this flu threatened to wipe out everyone else, in particular those who were still recovering from Ebola.
Brain realized what was about to happen when he saw that article. Africa was about to take another big hit to their population, and Brain knew that would not do well for a continent already ravaged by war, terrorism, and illness. He could only imagine what impact a deadly epidemic would have there, but he knew how he could find out the truth. He looked up recent articles about Ebola and found what he was looking for—villages ravaged by famine because too many working-class citizens succumbed to the illness, orphans roaming the barren streets for work and food, and an economy that couldn't handle the influx of emptiness as businesses fell due to a lack of workers.
He knew then that things were only about to get much, much worse, and the thought made him sick.
Brain took a count when he returned to school. Most students were back in class and no one else was missing. Elwood City was recovering quickly from their outbreak, but he knew most areas wouldn't be that lucky. New York City knew that, as another student from P.S. 865 had passed away from complications developed during their illness. They were ten years old and were not immunocompromised in any way. According to the article, he just got sicker than they expected faster than they could control.
That was a worrying article. Yes, a ten-year-old was young, too young to handle a disease of that magnitude without help. But the child was getting treatment by professionals, and Brain wondered if anyone else would have the same problem: A healthy child develops the illness, then their condition worsens too fast for anyone to do anything about. The thought was terrifying, and he knew then that his classmates were lucky to be alive.
But that afternoon when he read an updated article about the situation, he discovered that two more children from P.S. 865 had passed just like the ten-year-old, bringing up a new theory because of increased evidence. The children died after they had finished their antibiotic regiments, meaning their doctors thought the flu was finished. Ten or more days had passed since the first signs of their illness, and most of the time that meant patients were in the clear from worsening symptoms. These children were not, but no one realized that until the children were rushed to local hospitals, where they fought valiantly for a day or so before succumbing to a last wave of symptoms.
Brain knew what this meant: Even the first-world was not immune. All he could do was sit and wait like everyone else, but he knew this wouldn't end well for anyone, privileged citizens of the world or anyone else.
A call came in the middle of the night. Mrs. Powers answered it, then she made the slow walk to her son's bedroom. She woke him up gently, waiting patiently until he stopped blinking at uneven intervals and making light groaning noises. When he was fully aware of the world, she told him the news:
"I just got a call from Mrs. Read. She's letting everyone know that Buster Baxter has passed away from the flu. She wanted everyone to know because she's called the superintendent. She and Bitzi are working to cancel school until this outbreak is over, and…they also wanted to warn any parent whose child was sick that their illness might not be over," Mrs. Powers whispered, trailing off.
Brain nodded. The news was the worst he'd ever received, and it felt like a punch in the gut from a wrecking ball. Buster Baxter and Dead didn't seem to go together, yet he was, just like those kids from P.S. 865.
None of them could sleep past that, and soon the family sat stoically in the den with no lights on aside from the light coming from the television. In the apocalyptic light, they listened to CNN and heard the grim news: People were dying all over the country from the flu, a flu that appeared to be gone before swooping in to strike the final death blow.
Brain felt sick. He knew this was going to happen because of his research, but he hoped he was going to be wrong. Why did he have to be right? Why did this flu have to be so vicious?
Around daybreak, another call came in. Maria had also been rushed to the hospital within a few hours of Buster. They used a spokesperson at the hospital to let everyone know that she too had died from her illness. Brain could not fathom this information. Buster and Maria dead. But who else? Was Jenna next? Arthur had missed a few days of school too. Could he be next even though he hadn't been sick? He'd certainly been around enough sick people in the past few weeks.
As day arrived with blinding sunlight, people across the city stayed home. Local companies posted their closures in the same scrolling list that included every school in the city. The school board had listened, and cleaning crews were being dispatched to clean every school and learning facility in the city's system. Private academies were following suit, as were restaurants with playgrounds and other private establishments. Everyone was working to cleanse the world, but Brain wasn't worried about that. What about the kids who had been sick?
Around eight, the news sent out an alert: Everyone who had the flu recently was to report to their physicians as soon as they possibly could, especially children and others with weaker immune systems. Brain knew this would overwhelm the delicate system, but they had to try. News was coming in from San Francisco, Santa Fe, and numerous other places about sudden deaths after patients had been cleared. Officials had even amended other reports, and now the Columbian ambassador was in the same group as the others—died after they thought it was over.
Brain swallowed, wanting desperately to pull away from the television. This couldn't be real. It just couldn't. But it was, and everyone would just have to wait it out.
The news was never good in those following weeks. More deaths, both in the developed and developing worlds. Africa was being hit hard just from initial symptoms, but even the survivors were falling just as they were across the world. The flu was spreading at a rapid pace, and while not everyone developed a second wave, almost everyone who did died within days. It was something they hadn't seen before, not to the CDC's knowledge. Brain was reminded of the Spanish Flu, but no one was growing tired. They were just getting sick again—fever and the chills and aches associated with the flu virus.
Thousands were dying and no one knew what to do. People were staying inside most of the time, and if they did go out, they wrapped themselves up, donning masks and sometimes dressing in special suits. Brain had seen people walking their dogs in leftover paint suits and respirator masks from their garage. It was working, but no one could stay inside forever. They had to go out to buy food, or they had to go out to mail off their bills. Mrs. Powers needed to keep the business clean even if she wasn't opening it. To keep supplies from going bad, she brought them home for the family to eat. Brain was sick of ice cream and ice cream cones, especially when the world was so off kilter, but he knew they had to get rid of the product so it wouldn't ruin, so the business had a chance to reboot itself when this flu mess was over with.
Brain wondered when that would be. How long would it spread? How many people would die? It was thousands now, but would the casualties reach a million? Two million? Ten million? What if a billion people died? He couldn't handle the numbers. He tried to be positive: The CDC was on top of things, and combined with other world leaders in disease research, they had to find a solution—a better vaccine, better treatments, better everything. They had to fix this. They had to.
Elwood City Schools began emailing assignments to keep students on track. Students without internet access were asked to bundle up with masks, gloves, and suits so they could report to the public library or the nearest public school to do their work there. Immunocompromised children would be mailed packets printed in sterile environments and the packets would be hand-delivered by a suited individual.
Brain felt this was the end. No one just walked the streets anymore. No, you had to have protective suits over your winter gear, as Elwood City was starting to see cold and forty-degree highs for the first time in the season. Brain doubted that was good for the outbreak, but things weren't getting better anyway. The flu still spread, people were still dying, and the news reports were still the most depressing Brain had ever witnessed in his nine short years. He couldn't tell if he felt sad or if he just felt sick in his stomach from the news. He knew he was sad, but he was also worried about what would become of the world.
The millionth fatality was reported three weeks after the first wave of deaths. Brain was stunned. How could a million people die from the disease? Then the report was clarified: The millionth American had died. The numbers world-wide were hard to track because so many third-world countries both in the Americas and Africa were losing too many people at once to keep accurate counts. But the CDC estimated over ten million were dead, so Brain believed them.
Christmas came two months after the initial deaths. Brain hated listening to the news, as did his parents, but they wanted to know where they stood. After a sparse kwanza celebration, they turned on CNN. They immediately turned it off: The world was on-par to lose one billion to the virus before New Year's Eve.
Schools reopened a staggering four months later. It took that long for the CDC to figure things out. A new antibiotic was developed and was made widely available thanks to dedicated manufacturers. An antibody was discovered in survivors that was used to make the medicine, which was also being shipped to third-world countries, where entire villages were decimated by casualties. They couldn't prevent those deaths from continuing, but the antibiotics were a start.
The classroom felt empty with Buster and his jokes, and even Maria and her silence. Their empty seats weighed on everyone, especially Mr. Ratburn. His sister had also died in the outbreak, one of the millions of Americans who fell. The CDC estimated close to two billion people had died, a number the news analysts twisted to be as positive as possible: With so many people dead, resources would be at their highest levels ever, and the world would prosper.
Brain felt that was sick. How could the world prosper from such loss? P.S. 865 lost over half of its student body. How was that going to help anyone, a bunch of dead kids with no possibly future because of a disgusting disease that stumped everyone? What if one of those kids would've found the cure for cancer, been the first astronaut to go all the way to Jupiter, or some other important thing? Were future leaders killed? How could they tell? They were gone now.
The outbreak still stung everyone, hitting them where it hurt. It wasn't uncommon to see masked people anymore, but it was more likely you'd see a person sink to their knees wherever they were—a supermarket, a city street, even the DMV—as their minds were reminded of someone they lost. Bitzi was one of those people, dropping to her knees in the middle of a crosswalk as she remembered her lost boy six months later. The pain never got easier, but they'd have to learn to cope. It was the only way.
A/N: This is another installment in my Disasters series. I decided to go with a one-shot for this one and I like it. It's terrifying to think of something like this happening, but I remember how bad the flu was a few years ago, when the vaccine was practically ineffective because they predicted that strains X, Y, Z would hit instead of the A, B, and C that really came. I don't know if this is scientifically possible just to be honest, a flu that kills after you already think it's gone, but I feel that anything is possible. Besides, this is a fan fiction where I wanted the worst to happen, and you can expect much of the same in my future Disasters installments.
If you'd like to write your own Disasters piece, let me know so I can check it out. Also, if you have ideas, let me know. I'd love to see what you can come up with.
Also, because this is a one-shot, I can include it in my Summer 100 One-Shot Challenge. I don't recommend anyone taking it on because even I'm struggling, but feel free to set your own goals. Let the world know about them so we can support you in your efforts:)