CHILDREN OF THE PLAGUE


One generation passes away,

and another generation comes;

But the earth abides forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4

CHAPTER 1 - PART I

The End of the World As We Know it

“I HOPE YOU ALL DIE!”

Those weren’t the last words Lizzie had told her family, but they might as well have been. She couldn’t remember what she said when Mama took Jayce and Jerkwad to the hospital, but it didn’t matter anyway. They were gone, and all she could remember were the screaming fights and hateful words. 

Lizzie stared out through the gap in the dust-encrusted living room blinds. The streets were empty. At first patrol cars had come by several times a day blaring, “STAY INDOORS. NO PHYSICAL CONTACT.”

Now all was silent. Lizzie couldn’t remember when she had last seen a patrol car.

The clock showed mid-afternoon, but the gray excuse for a day in the Pacific Northwest was fading. Lizzie hauled herself out of the threadbare recliner and trudged to Mama’s bedroom. She snuggled under the covers wondering what she should eat for dinner. Mama had filled the freezer with pizzas before she left, but the same menu for a week was getting old.

Holes in the sheetrock beside the nightstand and the wires hanging out reminded her of the dead land-line. The day they went to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mama called to say Jason, Jayce to Lizzie, was in room 314. The next day the phone didn’t work. At some point, fixing it became tearing it out of the wall in frustration.

Cell systems had been overloaded since state officials declared the pandemic four weeks before. With the phones down and spotty Internet, Lizzie was alone and disconnected from what was happening. She wanted to go outside. Screw the quarantine.

AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” jerked Lizzie back to her surroundings. Her cell phone? When had it started working? She threw off the covers and followed the sound to the couch in the living room. A picture of Mama that Lizzie loved and Mama hated glowed on the screen.

“Mama?” Lizzie sat on the couch cradling the phone to her ear.

“Honey… I’ve been trying to call on both lines.” Mama’s voice teetered on the brink of hysteria.

Lizzie stopped breathing. Mama sniffed. “Doug’s dead.

Lizzie sighed, her shoulders relaxed. Not Jayce. Just Jerkwad, Mama’s boyfriend. “I’m sorry, Mama.” She hoped it sounded sincere for her mother’s sake.

“Are you okay? How’s Jayce?”

“Jason’s a trooper.”

Mama hated Lizzie’s nicknames for her little brother.

“I’m in his room,” Mama’s voice softened. “They didn’t have enough empty beds. You have food? You’re staying inside?”

“Yes, Mama.” Lizzie gritted her teeth; she wasn’t going to cry. “How are you?”

A cough exploded into the ear piece. “Other than too many years of smoking? Lizzie, burn the bedding. In Doug’s barrel in the yard. Then come back in. Promise?” 

“Okay. I will. I promise. Is Jason awake?” Jayce was eleven. Was he as freaked out as Lizzie? “No. He’s asleep, snoring. Can you hear?”

“Yeah.” Lizzie laughed. Jayce could sleep through anything. She took a deep breath. “Mama. I’m sorry for all the things I said. All the times I was a bitch.”

“Lizzie-girl. It’s okay. I was your age once.”

Lizzie didn’t remember having a conversation where Mama forgave her for anything. “Mama?”

“Get some rest. We’ll call you tomorrow. Sweet dreams, Lizzie.”

“Mama, don’t go. I—” She heard the phone click. “I love you, Mama,” she whispered.

Jayce is doing good and Jerkwad is dead. Jerkwad always said he’d kick Lizzie out of the house at 18. LIke mama would have allowed it. Well, I’m here, you’re gone, and I’m not 18 for two months. Was Lizzie a bad person for being happy?

Mama sounded horrible. What if they didn’t come home? The cat lady next door never did.

She fidgeted with her cell. It still had the picture of Lizzie and her ex-boyfriend Chad at the water slides. They had stayed friends when she broke up with him at the beginning of the summer. And in September after school started, he was the first person she knew to die. Then the names of the dead started to flow from the school loudspeaker and down her Facebook feed, one by one, until classes were cancelled and the world finished falling to pieces.

She crossed to the liquor cabinet and pulled out Jerkwad’s favorite whiskey, the glass Canadian Club Reserve bottle he kept refilling from plastic ones. Lizzie pulled out the sticky cork, “Here’s to you, Jerkwad.” She tipped it back, her lips on the bottle. The whiskey burned going down, but there wasn’t a lot in the bottle, so she took another swig. 

PART II

IF CELL PHONES WORKED AGAIN, were things getting better? Lizzie spun through her contact list and stabbed a name at random. Jennifer. It rang and went to voicemail. “You know who I am. You know who you are. You know what to do.”

“Jen. It’s Lizzie. Call me.”

Another stab; another message. The sound of voices, even if the people were gone, was like music.

***

Jayce’s screaming bird alarm clock woke her the next morning. Lizzie’s head throbbed, her mouth so dry her tongue felt like sandpaper. 

She rolled off the living room couch with thoughts of murdering her brother and his wake- the-dead clock. “Jason Ronald. Turn that thing—” Reality slammed back into place. Her brother was in the hospital with Mama. “Shit.” She stumbled to her feet, clothes twisted from sleeping in them. Lizzie stalked the alarm clock to its nightstand, wrenched the cord out of the wall and dropped it on the floor.

Lizzie wobbled back to the couch. The whiskey bottle on the floor made her heart jump. Jerkwad’s best. But he was dead. He would not be slapping her, or anyone else, for it.

Mama had rotten taste in men. She’d kicked Lizzie’s father out when Lizzie was three, blaming drugs and the army. The only thing left was the CD and movie collection Mama kept. When she was old enough Lizzie claimed them and Mama hadn’t objected.

Lizzie raised the whiskey bottle to swig the dregs, gagging as it hit her dry tongue. Her stomach threatened to empty its contents. She went to the bathroom, turned on the cold water, and splashed her face. Her head pounded and she knew from experience it would only get worse. She grabbed some ibuprofen from the medicine cabinet and swallowed a few.

She returned to the living room and flopped back on the couch. Her phone flashed. MISSED CALL. “Damn.” She thumbed the ‘return call’ and held it up to her ear. “Mama?”

“Lizzie?” Mama’s voice was feather-light and tired.

“Yeah, Mama. Sorry, I missed your call. I was sleeping.” Lizzie’s explanation felt lame.

“Liz.” Her voice broke off.

Lizzie could hear her crying. Her gut twisted and her throat tightened; she felt like she was going to throw up. “Jayce?”

Mama sobbed harder in response. “No, Mama. I’m coming over there.” 

“NO!” Her mother’s voice was steel. The sobs stopped. “You will not. You are not sick. I am. Doug is gone. Now Jason’s gone. Dammit, I’m dying! Please. Lizzie, promise me you’ll stay inside.” Another sob escaped. “Promise.”

“Okay, Mama.” Tears fell. Lizzie heard a voice in the background. “The nurse is here to give me meds, Lizzie. I’ll call you, okay?” “Yeah, Mama. Okay.” The phone clicked.

Why hadn’t she said I love you? Was it too much like goodbye? Or was she just withholding her love like her mother had done? Lizzie grabbed a plate, the closest thing to her, and hurled it against the wall. It left a dent, fell to the floor and shattered. She screamed. It gave her no release.

She headed to Mama’s room, keeping her phone close. She collapsed onto the bed and pulled Mama’s pillow into her arms. It smelled like her: spicy sweet perfume and a hint of her cigarettes. It had been a week, but Mama’s scent had not faded. 

Lizzie thought of little Jayce, his short blonde hair she’d dyed red for his first day of school, all the ketchup he put on everything, his annoying habit of having the right answer for everything and never getting into trouble for anything. Jerkwad loved to point out that Jayce was only her half-brother. But losing Jayce wasn’t half the hurt; blood was blood. Sobs wracked her body. She lay there for a long time until the sobs faded.

Her head throbbed again. She slid from the warmth of the covers and stepped into slippers. She walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, going straight for Mama’s pills. She ignored the bottles with her own name, prescriptions meant to help her “get along better” in the “normal” world. Not much point in that anymore.

Mama’s codeine would kick her headache quick. She opened the container, dropped one in her hand and put the container back on the shelf. 

PART III

THE PALE FACE STARING AT her in the mirror reminded her of Mama. She’d never seen it before, but in the black circles and the sad, red eyes, she looked like Mama. Except for the piercings and the hair. Lizzie’s buzz-cut had grown out to a boyish length. The frizzy pale pink at the tips faded to bleach blonde and dark at the roots. I need more sleep. The alarm woke her way too early.

Maybe she would sleep better in her own bed. She trudged past the sign that said “This way to the asylum” on her way upstairs. The house was bigger than most of the mobile homes and trailers she spent her childhood in, but still small for a family of four. A previous owner had converted the attic into a bedroom with enough space to stand upright if you were short. That’s why it was Lizzie’s room.

***

An Eerily quiet noon-day sun streaming in her window woke Lizzie from her dreamless sleep. No noise—alarms, angry voices, or TV—blared through the thin walls. 

She grabbed the cell, checking the screen. The phone was working but Mama hadn’t called. Jayce was gone. Dead. Her chest felt hollow, her eyes beaded with tears. “Jayce.”

Lizzie wanted to call Mama, but it probably wouldn’t do any good. Trust the nurse, Lizzie. Mama said she’d call. “But what if she forgets? Shit.”

Her head no longer pounded. She felt more herself and even more alone. No people. Not even her cat, Gordito. He’d disappeared last summer—probably had gone away to die.

Out of habit her hand found her cigarettes—one left. She searched for a jacket to go outside and smoke. Mama and Jerkwad had tried to get her to quit, but had done a pretty half-assed job. They both smoked, but they insisted she do it outside by Jerkwad’s illegal burn-barrel and use her own allowance. Screw it. She lit up and smoked on her bed.

The cigarette helped, but her restless nerves needed activity. Lizzie could clean up, but the amount of cleaning overwhelmed her. There were piles of laundry, candy wrappers, old CDs and cases strewn all over the floor. Sheets of paper lay in stacks and on top of journals, most scribbled with song lyrics or tattooed with intricate pencil and pen art of abstract shapes, calligraphic characters and rudimentary nudes. Some of the art had made it to the walls. She’d intended to plaster over the ugly blue and green paisley wallpaper, but had only gotten partway done.

Lizzie tucked the cigarette between her lips and pulled out a small burgundy velvet journal, Jayce’s birthday gift for her. She held a pen over a blank page, not knowing what to write—how to honor her brother. Her mind flitted from memory to memory. 

With pen in hand and only tears on the empty pages, Lizzie gave up. The cigarette she had forgotten to smoke had burned down. She ground the butt out onto one of Jerkwad’s CDs she had adopted as an ashtray, wondering if her own cigarettes were more like second-hand smoke.