Birdie kept herself at a jog as she went through the mall, peering into the stores. If she went any faster, if she started to run, the panic would set in. There was no reason to panic. Not yet. He’d be here, somewhere. The good memories the lit-up mall had brought to her were gone. There was only one memory, the same memory her mind retreated to whenever she became stressed.
There were three ways to survive the Blues, and of course Birdie had survived the hard way. Everything, it seemed, happened the hard way, although she wasn’t so blind that she couldn’t see some of it was her own damn fault. This memory, the one that haunted her, was not entirely her fault. Only some of it. Specifically, her coming home.
‘Home.’ She only thought of it that way because it was the house she had grown up in. It had barely been a home then, and certainly wasn’t any sort of home by the time she had come back. She hadn’t planned on staying any more than a few weeks. Just long enough to get her feet back under her. Get the car fixed up so it could make it another thousand miles, then keep going east. Birdie never should have done that. She should have found another way. Except, there was no other way.
Her mother couldn’t hide the shock on her face when she opened the door and found Birdie standing on the front porch. Open mouth and high color, like Birdie had slapped her.
“Who is it?” her father called from somewhere inside.
It took a couple seconds for her mother to find her voice, and then she said, “Roberta.”
He hadn’t forgotten her completely, of course. But the idea of his daughter coming home was so ridiculous and broken he hadn’t believed it.
Of course they welcomed her in. Her old room had been turned into a home gym the week after she’d left, but there was still a spare bed in the basement. The one her nephews used when her brother’s family came up from the city. Carl’s room, of course, was just the way it had been when he’d gone to college, and shortly after she arrived Birdie had gone in and walked around. He wondered what his wife must think, sleeping in this room every time they came up. Surrounded by his trophies on their shelves, his certificates and prizes on the walls, the picture of Carl and Emily Strathford all done up for prom still framed and hung up near the window. Birdie ran a finger over the desk and it came up clean. She scurried back to the beat up bed in the basement before her parents could find her.
They all put on a show. A sitcom, one of the many that film the happy family from three different angles. Eating dinner together. Passing the potatoes. News of her brother and nephews every night. Carl had been promoted only recently. They had bought a house in Denver. The boys were going to the best preschool in the city. Her parents didn’t seem to know much about Carl’s wife, and that seemed just about right. It was a very tenuous sort of truce, built through pressure and force of will like a sandcastle bridge. And every time she dodged a question about her life, a few more grains of sand fell away. The bridge would crumble. They all knew it. Birdie hoped the money would come in first. It didn’t, but still the blowout never happened.
It was all over the news by the time she caught it. Cities across the country were plagued. Hospitals full, emergency services overrun, everyone interviewed for the camera flush in the face with bags under their eyes. Birdie watched breathlessly. Her parents seemed more interested in using the news to pry.
“Looks bad in San Diego.”
“Most people have it, they say.”
“Are you worried about anyone?”
“Why would I be worried about San Diego?”
Repeat for Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Portland and Seattle. Every night Birdie became a little more afraid, but her parents never really seemed to see it. To them, the flu was a big city problem. Not something that could find its way to Broken Hearts. They weren’t paying attention.
A mutation of H5N1, the scientists on TV said. A bad mutation. Superlatives kept getting used. Most contagious. Deadliest. And the thing that scared the scientists the most: the incubation time. Flus were fast. They were supposed to be fast. The last thing she remembered the scientists on TV declaring was how slow it moved. Up to two weeks of incubation! Two weeks of being contagious, of shedding virus like a dog sheds fur at the end of summer, and no symptoms. Then there’d be a week or two of usual flu symptoms, fever and aches and cough and lethargy and enough pressure in the head to make you think it would explode. Then you’d get better.
Then you’d get so much worse.
The end result was everyone walking around dead for weeks.
The end results was Birdie didn’t know where she got it, or even if she got it first. But she was the first to show symptoms, at least in their house. It had been four weeks since the news had started talking about it, so probably two months since it had started. The cities were decimated. They weren’t even trying to keep count anymore. Her parents were finally starting to get concerned. And Birdie had woken up the next morning with a fever of one oh three and a thick rattle in her chest when she breathed.
By the end of the day she was in and out of hallucinations, barely able to breathe. The sounds above her were not in her mind. The sounds of scrambling. Of packing. Of her brother and family arriving. They were leaving. Her parents owned a cabin in Idaho, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and she knew that’s where they were going. Their daughter had brought this upon them, and now they must flee. It didn’t matter, but they didn’t know that because they never listened.
Two week incubation period. All of them in the same house.
Her mother came down and opened the door, and for a brief second Birdie thought they were coming for her. But she had stayed at the door frame, staring. Her eyes were sharp, and only showed hate. Birdie tried to say something but all energy had left her. She gurgled. Hate was replaced by disgust and then her mother was closing the door. A few more sounds from upstairs. The air-puncturing sound of car doors slamming. And then her family was gone, leaving her to die in her childhood home’s basement.
This was the memory she had come back to these past three years, every time the stress got to her. It was featured in all her nightmares, and even while awake if she let her mind wander she would come back to her mother’s face. Wrinkled, surrounded by hair dyed a natural red, a face she knew was capable of radiant love but never because it had been directed at her. Her mother’s face peering around a door before hurrying away. The unspoken accusation in her eyes. She didn’t think much of her family anymore. Just of that moment.
Her mother’s face peered around every corner and out of every window as she jogged down the mall concourse.
“Birdie, slow down,” Nico called from behind her.
“We have to find him.”
“We will. Will you just….hey, stop. Stop.”
The hand he placed around her arm was gentle. Birdie’s first instinct was to rip her arm away, growl something ugly. She fought it. Nico didn’t deserve that. His eyes were as soft as his grip and Birdie found it infuriating but knew it was irrational.
“Vibe check,” Nico said, and despite herself Birdie let out a breathy laugh. It had meant something else before the Blues, according to Nico, some internet thing Birdie had never come across. Now, for two of them after the Blues, it had become a quicker way to say Step back and calm down, because I think the stress of the situation has made you panicked and clouded your judgment. Which, of course, is what was happening at this exact moment. Nico didn’t know it, but nearly every time he had hit with ‘vibe check’ she had drifted back to the last memory of her mother.
“I don’t want him to be left behind.”
Nico nodded. “Luckily, I’m in charge, and I say we don’t leave until we find him.”
Birdie nodded and patted the braids wrapped over her head. Nico was in charge. His first time, so no matter how proud of him she was, she had just forgotten. The others, Mike especially, might not have been so charitable with their time.
“We can go through this whole mall, store by store, looking down every aisle and in every back room,” Nico said. “Or we can think and do this the smart way. “What do we know about him?”
Birdie felt the panic and frustration bubbling up within her and swallowed it down before speaking.
“I don’t know anything. He doesn’t talk.”
As soon as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. The not talking part, yes, that was true, even when he yelled out in his sleep it was always formless vocalizations. But that didn’t mean she didn’t know anything.
“He doesn’t leave me. He seems scared to. He was there when we went down to maintenance. If he didn’t follow, something must have caught his eye down there.”
They turned and went back. This time Birdie let herself run. There was no panic in it. Nico had been right, they had just needed to think about things for a second. She was startled at how far they come across the mall. In her haze she had thought they had only crossed a few stores, but they had to backtrack across most of the mall to get back to the maintenance hallway.
“He was staring at this fountain, last I saw,” Nico said. It was a big ugly thing. Dry and dusty. Whatever pump kept the water going wasn’t hooked up to the generator. Even before the Blues, when so many niceties and vanities were considered essential, this fountain was considered superfluous. “You called for him when we went down the hall. Maybe he looked up at your voice, and saw-”
A bookstore on one side of the hall. A dollar store on the other. Birdie only looked between the two for a second before going for the books. Whatever had drawn him away from them would have been startling, and meaningful, and she doubted cheap Christmas tinsel would have been enough.
They found him in the back, sitting on the floor in front of the science aisle. As soon as Birdie saw him, his head bent over a book, she had to bend with her hands on her knees. The relief was so strong it threatened to knock her over.
“June…what the fuck…you can’t do that.”
Birdie looked up and found the same wide-eyed relief on Nico. Maybe he had only been afraid of losing someone on his first job in charge, but Birdie didn’t think he’d have the same look on his face if it had been Mike.
June looked up, and Birdie was struck by his eyes. He’d been slowly getting better, had been making eye contact and sometimes it could seem like he was understanding you. Birdie realized now he had still been trapped in his own mind, the progress he had been making baby steps compared to whatever had just happened. He was here, now. His green eyes were misty but here. Seeing her. Seeing Nico. The book he was holding was open to the middle and Birdie realized he must have been reading it.
Carefully, with slow, clumsy hands, June closed the book and handed it to her. He was trying to speak, she could see the way his lips worked and quavered, but as she took the book nothing was happening.
“Physics is Fun, You’re Just Not Talking About it Right, by Benjamin Hooper, Jr,” Birdie read.
Next to her, Nico snorted. “I took physics in high school, I’m not sure how you make it fun.”
“Listen to you, subtly bragging about-”
Birdie froze. She had flipped the book over as she spoke. There was a blurb from some critic for some paper that didn’t exist anymore, and a picture of the author. His hair was short. He was heavier, bordering on fat. He looked ten years younger. But the face was the same. She looked up from the picture to where Benjamin Hooper, Jr was sitting on the floor.
“Me,” he finally managed to get out, practically panting with the effort. “Me.”