"Society's Ills" by John F. Banas
The dawn brought light and warmth, but no relief.
I heard the back gate squeak open and slowly moved my finger to rest on the trigger guard, then squinted into the morning brilliance.
"It's only me, J.T."
I kept my finger in position. You could never know when a friend had been compromised. I would wait until I saw my neighbor's face appear around the corner of the house -- alone.
Of course I never used to think like that, but these days, you can't be too careful. Larry waddled around the corner looking tense and swiveling his head like Stevie Wonder having an epileptic fit.
He climbed the three steps to my pool's deck and huffed his way over toward me, giving up in the battle with gravity just above the closest deck chair. I was surprised that it didn't collapse from the collision.
"I heard that three more families haven't been heard from."
I removed my finger from the trigger guard. "Oh? Where?"
Larry nodded his head toward the south. "Over by the school."
That was the older part of the neighborhood, and where the outbreak seemed to have originated from. At least in this part of the state.
I tried to remember what the neighborhood looked like before people started getting sick. I couldn't remember who lived down there. I know Susan and I used to know a lot of people in that direction, but as God is my witness, I couldn't remember anybody in particular now.
Nearly everyone had kids, though.
"We ought to check on them," I said, knowing damn well that Larry would take a pass.
"What, and catch this thing? Who'll care for my family? You crazy? Besides, we don't even know who it is. I just heard a rumor, that's all."
The temperature was probably in the mid-sixties, but Larry was sweating. He swiped a hand across his bald head and looked at it before wiping it off on his shirt.
He noticed me watching him.
"Hey, quit looking at me like that! I don't have this thing! You know I'm outta shape; that's why I'm sweatin'!"
I nodded. Larry was a retired high school coach who really should have been working. Back before all this happened, he basically moped around the house all day, drinking beer and watching over the block from his big wrap-around porch. He'd really let himself go to hell in the last five years.
When the kids were out front, he used to coach them when they shot baskets in the driveway. Yeah, there was nothing I enjoyed more then having a beer with Larry and his third, no, fourth wife while my kids dented my garage door with every missed shot.
That was before the outbreak.
"You think they're gonna airlift some supplies in today like they promised? We're getting' low on some stuff, and Marsha could use some of those...woman things."
I shrugged. "Haven't a clue. They've missed the last two, and if you listen to the news, they're behind all across the state."
Larry winced. "That's what you get when you expect the government to take care of you." He shook his head as if he were throwing off water.
I wasn't in the mood for a political philosophy debate. Watching my pool all night was beginning to take its toll. We had to use it as a water supply because CNN interviewed some moron from the CDC who said they thought this thing was water-borne. As time went on, it was apparent that they didn't know any more than we did.
But we still use the pool for our water because it was filled last year, before all this crap and had proven itself. A drop or two of bleach, and it's okay according to the CERT manuals.
So, I have to guard it. I'd interrupted four different people while they were dipping their bottles in my pool last week alone. What if they had this thing? What if my kids needed that water?
I couldn't let just anyone dip into our supply. I know it wasn't neighborly, but neither is stealing. Larry and a few others are the only ones that I share my water with. We've got a sort of ‘Survival Co-op'.
Larry seemed to know what I was thinking. "I'll stand watch tonight if you want. You look like you're about to keel over."
"I'm not sick," I shot back.
Larry held up his hands to me. "No, no. That's not what I meant..."
My turn to wipe my forehead. "Sorry Larry. This is really starting to get to me, I guess."
He nodded. "Well look, I need to see how Marsha is."
As he got up, I asked, "How's her ankle?"
I wanted to know before Larry started falling down that long, blissful road to inebriation. I'd get the truth now, later I'd get rants and raves.
Larry shook his head and frowned. "It's still swollen. Doc says he really can't tell without X-rays, but he did say it wasn't broken."
"Thank God for small favors," I added.
"Yeah. Thank God. See ya, J.T."
Larry had grunted himself to a standing position, his face reddened by the effort. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
"Is Doc going to see about those families?"
Larry's upturned eyebrow fell into a frown. "I hope not. I better ask him."
"For Christ sake Larry, he's a doctor on the south side. He knows how to protect himself."
"He's not a doctor, he's a chiropractor. And besides, we don't know what we're dealing with here. Still, after seven and a half months, we don't know! Would you bet your family on that?"
I had to admit, I really didn't know. It sure was easy to be afraid, these days.
"Hell Larry, I just...well it bothers me that we can't help the kids around here."
Larry turned and shrugged, holding his arms out, palms up. "How do you think I feel? I spent my whole life helping kids. This is just the way it is these days. That's all. Just the way it is."
He left before I had a chance to engage him in a battle of wits. Maybe that was a good thing; I was at my wits end.
The sliding door swooshed open and Susan came out in her robe, coffee mug in hand and hair in total disarray.
"Shoot anybody last night dear?"
This was really getting to her too. She walked over to the deck rail and surveyed the pool. I spoke to her back.
"Well, I had a bead on some squirrels, but then a shot gun would splatter the meat in all directions with game that small. No neighbors, though."
She nodded as if this were a perfectly normal morning conversation. Welcome to my new world. It's about as far away from The Brady Bunch as you can get.
"Larry heard that three more families from down by the school haven't been heard from in awhile," I offered, trying to snap her out of her morning fog.
"Was he sober?"
She hadn't moved a muscle. She just kept staring out through the backyards of our neighbors, and checking the pool out. I've come to think that she was obsessed with the water level.
Maybe by focusing on that, she could escape for a while.
"For now. Still paranoid though. He won't check on those people down by the school for fear of exposing himself to this thing."
She nodded. "Maybe he's right."
"Maybe. But you'd think by now that the contagious period would be over."
"Honey, Sue, are you feeling okay?"
She turned slowly to face me without really looking at me.
"If I wasn't, would you shoot me?"
I truly didn't know if she was kidding or not.
"I'm not like Larry."
To emphasize the point, I broke the gun apart, but kept the shell in the breach.
Susan didn't seem to take notice. "Well, what should we have for breakfast today?"
"I'm good," I said, shrugging my shoulders in a vain attempt at indifference.
"Well," she went on, not even looking at me, "I've got Nicorest gum for the kids. We ran out of eggs, so until I can get to the store, it's the gum or those damned Fruit Loops again, and I think the kids are tired of Fruit Loops."
I remained seated, staring at her. Yeah, I was pissed. She was stronger than this. Her attitude was starting to affect the kids.
This just wasn't a good time to tell her about the plan I was hatching. All those hours poolside at night, well, you think of think of things. Sometimes, terrible things.
Maybe tonight, just before lights out. Yeah, she's usually more receptive then.
No use in just sitting around. I got up and stretched. Suddenly, I realized just how cold I was, even though it was early June. All the night patrols on the deck were undeniably bad for my joints.
Susan didn't even take notice. She turned away again. Apparently breakfast was over.
I cleared my throat, hoping she would reengage me instead of this mindless drifting she fell into a lot lately. But she just stood there, coffee mug in hand, leaning against the deck railing, thousand mile stare out over the backyards belonging to people we used to know.
I had to snap her out of it. She was a strong person, but like nearly everyone in our community, this sickness, this...tragedy has changed her. Whoever said that which does not kill us makes us stronger, didn't know anything about the effects of an unknown contagious killer.
She put her hand up; wait.
At least she wasn't checking out. I was relieved to see that. But it meant she had zeroed in on something, and it wasn't necessarily a good thing.
I held my breath.
No smells or movement out of the ordinary. Not even a wisp of breeze glanced my cheeks. I snapped the gun closed and took the safety off.
Just what the hell had she noticed?
Then I heard it. The unmistakable sound of a child crying.
Not to be sexist about it, but women seem more attuned to that sound then all the guys I know. But what I heard, I didn't like.
Somewhere close by, some kid – an older kid – wasn't crying so much as begging, and desperately.
I cocked the gun.
"Where is it coming from?" I asked lowly.
Susan said nothing, but cocked her head a bit then pointed down a few houses to the left.
Being at the top of the block on a curved road, we had a pie shaped yard bordering on three neighbors – Larry on one side, the Indian on the other and then two rows of backyards leading away from our back fence into the distance toward the south. We were on a hill, higher than the rest of the block.
I followed Susan's finger and heard a screen door slam. Still couldn't see anyone, but the sound was getting clearer.
"Please! Don't do this Daddy!"
It was a message I'd heard drift over our yard for the last two weeks, from one side or the other. And every time I heard it, I lost a little more stomach lining.
I hefted the gun, grabbing it, ready to defend my family, my house, my life.
Our patio door slid open. Without even looking, I called back, "Get in the house, kids. Close the door and check the other doors. Don't forget the windows!"
I could hear the fear in my oldest Daughter's voice. "Da Da I think you and Mommy should come in."
"Do it now," I hissed, feeling bad about the harshness. But this was serious.
The door slid shut and I waited until I heard it lock before I moved over towards the steps, near to my wife.
"Where do you think they are?"
She shrugged, more alive and aware now then she had been all morning, maybe for a day or two. These things made her into some kind of...I don't know...huntress I guess.
I could nearly feel her tension; ears cocked, senses raw, synopses on rapid fire. I knew the feeling.
We had kids to defend.
In the distance, you could hear it again. This time, another adult's voice could be heard, a woman's.
"Edward...Eddie! Think about this! Think about what you're doing!"
Then it started; a bout of coughing that could make you gag. When it stopped, it brought no peace.
"See Jackie? See? It's here, it's here! You got it, now we all got it! Aw...fuck!"
Jackie and Ed. We shared tee times with them nearly every Sunday. I knew Ed, and I knew what was coming next.
Susan put a hand up to her mouth. "Dear God...dear sweet God..."
"I'm going to put a stop to this," I said to no one in particular and started down the stairs.
"John, they have it."
"I won't get close."
She nearly leapt down the stairs and landed next to me on the grass. I was only a few sprinting steps away from the fence.
"What are you going to do, John? You going to shoot them?"
"Yeah. Ed at least. I got to stop this, Sue. You heard it; Rebecca's there. He's going to off Jackie right in front of their daughter. I can't let that happen, Susan!"
She grabbed my arm and held on.
"John, you can't get involved! They have it!"
When I didn't say anything she tugged – hard. I was spun around so fast that the barrel hit her in the cheek.
"Honey! Jeez, I'm sorry! I--"
She grabbed my collar on both sides of my neck. "If you go over there, you'll get it. You'll bring it home, John. You'll bring it to us. Me and the girls."
She was so focused. The gun had hit her so hard and would probably raise a welt, but she stood there, staring me down; pleading with her eyes.
"But Rebecca, Honey, Rebecca..."
Susan didn't even close her eyes. "Rebecca is going to die."
It was the way she said it that was so unnerving. Rebecca was in the Girl Scout Troop Susan co-lead. The girls both played with her, back in the day.
But none of that mattered to my wife who was practically catatonic just a minute or two ago.
In the distance, the coughing stopped. I could clearly make out both Jackie and Rebecca pleading with Ed.
"They can't let this spread! They're going to find a cure and give us medicine! Please, Eddie, darling! My love...no!"
The gut-wrenching melodrama broke my connection with Susan, and I looked up to see Larry in his bedroom, looking out toward Ed and Jackie's.
He was expressionless; drained. About as drained as my heart felt just then.
Susan shuttered when we heard it. Larry looked down, then over to me. It was a good long way, but I could see it in his eyes.
I squinted at him. Hard, too.
I wanted him to feel this. I wanted him to help me stop it. I needed my buddy to help me help Rebecca.
Larry lowered his head again and drew his blinds.
Susan gripped me harder. Her expression was beginning to fade. Her will softening.
But I just stood there. I stood there like a coward.
"Oh my God! MOMMY! Help! Help me! Somebody help my Mommy! Please..."
Rebecca began crying.
There was no more crying. Well, from a child, that is.
No birds chirped. Nothing moved, there were no sounds at all. You could bet the neighborhood was tuned in, though.
Hell, it's interesting to see who's going to get voted off the island next. We're addicted to it, our neat little civilization, aren't we?
Every time it happens and we survive, it somehow makes us feel better about us, doesn't it?
I knew that's what Susan was feeling right now. Even though her eyes were closed, I knew that's what she was feeling.
Deep down, loving my kids and Susan, I couldn't blame her. Not really.
I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe, swallow or feel anything. I couldn't even cry.
A quick glance up at the house assured me that the kids were doing what we had trained them to do. They weren't at the windows looking out. They were probably in the basement, hiding under blankets and other now odd reminders of normal life.
"Larry? John? I know you're out there!"
I took Susan's hand off my arm but kept looking into her eyes. I was looking for support, absolution – anything.
She had flinched slightly when Ed called out to us. A nervous glance toward Ed and Jackie's told me she was worried that the guy was going to come and get us next.
I raised the gun into firing position, ready for an assault from any direction.
"John? You there? I had to do it! Larry? I know what you're thinking, but it's going to happen to you too!"
"No, it's not" I spoke softly to my wife.
She drew me near and squeezed me, holding on I guess, to what was left in her life.
"I know you're there, you bastards! It's going to get you too! You'd do the same to protect your family from that horror! Can you hear me? Answer me, God damn you!"
Larry's blinds didn't so much as ripple. Behind them, I knew that Larry would be readying that Archery set he had taken from the school where he used to teach.
It was funny; he usually mocked the sport, being so into football, baseball and basketball. But I had seen him use that Archery set on some poor sick peddler who was just asking to use Larry's phone.
Larry didn't do much mocking of Archery these days.
"You miserable bastards!"
Ed was crying now. Sobbing. Weak.
"Hold on," I told Susan.
She started crying. I felt around her and found no blood. I looked up at the house searching for bullet holes, but when the sobbing stopped, I knew where Ed's last bullet went.
I hugged my wife back, passionately.
Just another wonderful day in the neighborhood.