NOTES: This is my first fic written from college. I have to apologize one more time for the lack of updates on Exposure; I promise I haven't forgotten. It's just been really weird and tiring moving in (even though I adore my school) and I've only had little ten minute snippets in which to write. I swear it will be updated soon.
It starts with a horrific rumor, which becomes a headline, which turns out, in the end, to be true.
The weather is bitter cold, and nobody thinks twice when a man shows up at a California hospital with a cough and high fever. Twelve hours later, he's dead.
Twenty-four hours after that, the entire town is sick.
It's three days before the CDC admits what's going on, and by then people are dying all over the world.
He'd started to feel her slipping away the moment he'd gotten the job offer. Later, he thought there must have been something special about the sound of the phone ringing. There'd been trepidation in her eyes.
"You should take it," she said, moving closer to him on the leather couch. "It's good news." She maneuvered herself into his lap, kissing him and running her fingers through his hair.
He'd known then and there that she wasn't going to move with him.
Millions of dollars have been spent over the past few years toward implementing a containment plan, or so the government says. What they aren't saying is that it's too late now because nobody's wanted to see the pandemic for what it is.
Wear respirator masks, the press releases say. As long as you can breathe clean air, you might survive. Wear goggles, because your eyes are a vulnerability. Diseases like this will exploit any vulnerability. Wear gloves, because any and all surfaces may be contaminated.
Items fly off pharmacy shelves faster than anyone's worst nightmare vision. Water, canned food, vitamin supplements vanish within a few hours of the first press release. There are riots at stores all over the country when supplies of goggles, gloves, and masks run low.
Nobody's talking about what kind of world will be left for the lucky few that do survive.
She'd come to visit him once in Arizona. She hadn't called, hadn't written, just showed up on his doorstep one morning as he'd been getting ready for bed after a graveyard shift at work.
"I miss you," she'd said, and he'd known immediately that there was a "but" coming. She'd dyed her hair blonde without telling him, and he wondered later whether that should have been his first clue. Cameron wanted change, and maybe always had. Maybe he'd been a mere first stop on her very long journey in the direction of happiness.
He could already taste the distance in her kiss, feel the loneliness in the way her fingers worked the buttons on his shirt. Everything was backwards, off-kilter, the windows sunlit as he pulled her exhaustedly into his bed.
It was dark when he woke, naked and alone.
She'd disappeared without a trace after that.
Five days after the beginning of the outbreak, Chase is awakened from a fitful few minutes of sleep by a call from work. He chokes on the dryness in his throat, panicking for a moment before he realizes that it's only because of the mask.
Chase puts the phone to his ear and listens numbly without comment. The hospitals are closing down, becoming quarantine and containment zones for survivors. Treatment of the sick has been abandoned almost entirely. If he comes in immediately, he can get into the first group where there will be a negative pressure airlock. He thinks for a moment about being able to take off the damn mask and breathe clean air.
"Thank you," he says, and hangs up the phone. He takes a moment to switch off his alarm clock, and goes back to sleep.
He isn't thinking about where he's going when he starts to drive away, but in his heart he knows he's going home. He wonders whether it will be to die.
The highways are jammed with cars, and in some places sick people are lined up on sidewalks. They pound on boarded-up store windows, and pull at the handles of car doors. Stopped at a corner, Chase catches sight of a wisp of blonde hair and his heart skips a beat. Five years without contact, and somehow he's still waiting. But then the woman turns, revealing a face that's too old and sick. He tells himself the tightness in his chest is just stress and exhaustion, and keeps on driving.
Somewhere in the middle of the country—it's taken only five days for infrastructure to be all but obliterated—the road passes a large field where people are lined up with signs. They aren't wearing masks, and Chase has the sudden impulse to rip his off. He's risking his life, he knows, by not having gone into work and hidden behind the doors of his hospital. But it's never been home, and all he can think is that he doesn't want to die alone. He leaves the mask in place.
The signs come into view as traffic stops again. They proclaim Armageddon, and invite the people in cars to stop running, take off their protective gear, and trust in the protection of God. Chase looks blearily at them, the words blurred by too much adrenaline and too little sleep. He feels a stab of betrayal, bitterness over faith disenchanted.
The farther north the road winds, the worse the cold becomes. On the seventh day since the outbreak began, Chase stops at a gas station where there are icicles hanging from the awnings. The sign where the prices ought to be has been stripped bare of its numbers, leaving gaping white spaces in their place. He stares at it for a moment before pulling up to a pump. The hose works fine, and he breathes a sigh of relief. But then the machine eats his credit card, and when he walks inside he finds the cashier slumped over her register, dried brown blood caked on the skin under her nose. Dead.
For a moment Chase considers checking for a pulse; then he turns and runs. Back in his car, he floors the gas pedal, cringing at the squeak of his own tires as he tears back out onto the street. It's fitting, he thinks, that the world should ultimately fall at the mercy of a virus. This is the era of man-made super bugs, after all. Diseases like this are the unintentional legacy of millions of well-meaning doctors like himself.
When night comes again he pulls off the road at what used to be a rest stop, and falls asleep with his forehead to the wheel. He dreams that the woman from the gas station is crying tears of blood for him. He wakes with his palms sweating inside his latex gloves.
The car runs out of gas for the last time a mile outside of Princeton. It's snowing, but Chase gets out and starts to walk anyway, because there's nothing else to do and he's come this far. He knows that the hospital will already be full, that he likely won't even get in the door. But that doesn't matter, because it's the only meaning he can remember.
There are men with guns lined up outside the glass doors when he gets there. It's so cold he can barely feel his body at all, and he has the weird sensation of floating toward the proverbial gatekeeper. He comes to a halt in front of the man in the middle, and falls to his knees in the snow, too exhausted to stand.
"We're closed," says the guard. "Too many people already."
"Please," Chase hears himself say. His voice is uncharacteristically needy, and the thought that springs to mind surprises even him. "I came all the way from Arizona. My family is in there."
The guard locks eyes with him for a long moment before something gives.
"All right. Merry Christmas."
Chase jerks at the last; he's forgotten the date and its symbolism entirely.
For the first day and a half of quarantine he does nothing but sleep. The hospital cot is thin and hard, and he's still wearing protective gear, but at least it's all fresh. Not so long ago he'd have been bitter about spending Christmas alone, he thinks. Now there's nothing but resignation, and perhaps the barest glimmer of hope if he allows himself to admit it.
He sits staring at the glass walls as minutes stretch into hours, and then again into days. He tries to listen to the conversation on the other side, every sense straining for a glimpse or a word from the others. He has to remind himself that he doesn't even know if she's alive, let alone here.
And yet somehow, she's the only thing he still has faith in.
The decontamination shower burns against his skin, and the goggles have left raw places on the skin of his face. Chase shifts impatiently under the chemical flow, so close and still so far from knowledge of the others.
Clothed at last in sterile scrubs, and freed from his protective gear, Chase steps into the airlock. He sees her immediately and knows, though she's several feet away with her back to him. He approaches slowly, with the caution of an animal newly liberated from a trap. She turns, and there's a moment before recognition comes. Her hair is short, dark, and professional, but her eyes are as full of hurt as ever.
"Allison," Chase says softly.
She nods once, but doesn't say anything.
"I was hoping you weren't…I had to know." The words come out clumsy and rushed, but five years have done nothing to ease the ache associated with her presence. "I prayed you weren't dead."
A strange look flits across her features, and he realizes that she hasn't thought at all about him. He isn't sure whether to be happy for her, or sorry for himself.
"I'm not dead," she says at last. She looks at the floor. "Obviously you aren't either."
"Were you working here when it happened?" There's no logical reason, but he's been certain she was here all along.
"No," says Cameron, surprising him. "I teach now. I have a son."
Chase feels the air go suddenly out of his lungs. He doesn't know why he hasn't considered this possibility before. "Are you married?"
"I was. He left." She turns and walks away.
Just after midnight she appears again. He's sitting with his back to one of the hall walls when she walks by. She doesn't stop at first, just paces back and forth like the floor is lined with people and she's waiting for one to leave so she can have a place to sit.
"Your son," says Chase, "is he here?"
"He's asleep." She still isn't looking at him.
Chase nods slowly, an idea starting to form. "Maybe tomorrow I could meet him?"
"Why?" Cameron looks taken aback.
"I like kids." He shrugs. "I like his mother."
Cameron's head snaps up. "Damn it, Chase, it's the end of the world!"
"It's New Years," says Chase stubbornly, because even after five years, he can't stop wanting to have faith in her. "It's a beginning." He gets to his feet and pulls her into a hug.
"I missed you," Cameron says into his shoulder.
This time, he almost believes her.