This is a foil to my previous post The World Thins. Which means while it’s much lighter in tone it’s still about COVID-19, so if reading anything about that right now isn’t your jam I’d take off.
Carl Vance looked around his little cabin. It had served him well these last two and a half years. Long, isolated two and a half years. Necessary two and a half years. But now it was all over. His food rations were almost completely gone, barely enough for the next week, and he’d never really gotten the hang of hunting the way he thought he would have (all that time at the firing range and he had never once considered that he didn’t actually know what to do with a carcass to turn it from a dead animal into food). His water purification system had recently started to break down, and he was noticing more sediment – and more panicked trips to the outhouse. His generator had crapped out almost immediately, followed by a freak rain storm that had driven a branch into one of his closets and drowned out all of his batteries, so he’d been without electronics for over two years. He’d read all his books twice. He’d walked the woods around his cabin so many times he knew every tree and bush and rivulet. Carl was, to be completely frank, bored.
All of this added up to a single conclusion: it was time to discover the new world order.
Carl Vance was a smart man. An everyman. A Renaissance man. He was a scholar, a gentleman, using all his free time for his own research on the internet. But he was also a hard man, a man’s man, able to swing a hammer and pull a saw. He was a forward thinker. A man of foresight. And insight. And all sorts of other sights English didn’t have the words for. He was the most clever man he personally knew. And based off the reactions to his Facebook posts, a lot of his friends would agree.
Some things, though, you don’t share. For your own protection. The entire eight years he was building and preparing his cabin he didn’t say a single thing. Came up with excuses for all his weekends away. Hikes. Family two states over. Work trips. Anything to keep people from knowing the truth the way he did.
All of his research pointed to the same conclusion: an end was coming. What sort of end, no one was sure, but it was coming. And only the prepared would survive. The last thing Carl Vance needed was a bunch of Facebook friends begging for a spot in his cabin. Taking up his space. Eating his food. Making risk of detection that much higher. No, no. He liked his friends. Not that much.
When whispers of the virus began, his friends laughed it off. Said it was no big deal. Would never come to the states. Would be like that last SARS thing from a decade or so back – blink and you miss it. Carl wasn’t so sure. He waited. He watched. He laughed with his friends at the jokes, but inside he was a watchdog in the night, keeping his eyes to the forest edge.
The very second he heard of a case on American soil, Carl called work and quit with no explanation. He packed up everything in his main house he gave two damns about, and in the middle of the night drove out of town and up the mountain trail toward his cabin.
The end had finally happened. And Carl Vance was going to ride it out in style.
He’d been keeping his pickup in tune in case he ever needed it, so it turned over after two or three tries and then he was sailing down the dirt road back into town. Time to find out what was left.
The road smoothed out and he glanced at the radio. He’d never dared to turn it on, afraid of messing with the battery somehow, but now seemed as good a time as ever. Most likely it was going to be nothing but static across the band. But maybe some survivors had set up a settlement and were broadcasting a call to stragglers. Carl certainly wasn’t joining up with anyone, oh, no, isolation had turned him into a mountain man, but if there was a place nearby he could trade that would be mighty helpful.
Bracing himself, he punch the ‘on’ button.
“Sooyyyy un perado. I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me…”
Carl almost jerked the truck entirely off the road. In his panic he managed to keep the tires on the hardpack and swat at the volume knob, turning the music down from a holler to an inside voice. The song faded as his heart started beating again.
“You’re in the middle of ninety-minutes of nonstop music, with Tom Anderson!”
Carl Vance stepped on the breaks and stared at the radio as some Journey song started playing.
“Maybe someone is broadcasting old tapes,” he said to himself. “Yeah, yeah. That’s it. Someone with a little nostalgia.”
He spun the tuner knob to the next station, still fully expecting static.
“Okay, we got some new music coming at you now!” an energetic voice practically chanted at him. “Who’s ready for some Lizzo out there? She’s coming to the Pepsi Center, two weeks from now, July 30th, so let’s get pumped!”
A song Carl had never heard in his entire life washed over him as he did quick math. He’d been keeping track of time with a rudimentary calendar carved into his wall. If he had kept time as well as he thought he had – perfectly, of course – than that lined up with what the hyped-up woman on the radio said. July 30th would be in two weeks.
“Odd coincidence,” Carl said as he flicked the radio off. He rode the rest of the way to what remained of town in silence.
As he approached what would usually be the busiest intersection in his little mountain town he began to feel the pangs of nostalgia. No more would these streets see so many cars. No more would horns honk. No more would children cry for their mothers. No more-
He blew the stop sign and barely missed hitting a bright green Kia Sorento on the cross street. The woman driving laid on the horn and flipped him off but didn’t stop.
Carl Vance stared at the car, eyes wide, practically forming tears.
“To find another survivor so soon!” he said. “What luck!”
Another horn made him jump. He turned around to find a man in a pickup glaring at him. The man rolled down his window and leaned out.
“Get out of the intersection you fucking moron!”
The man drove around, also laying on his horn and flipping him off.
“Hardened survivors,” Carl said. “Only the toughest survived.”
The General Store by the lake was his destination. Even if the owner didn’t survive, someone else had surely taken up the cause. It was central in the town, once filled with supplies, and offered good defenses with the lake right behind it. It would be the central hub of survivors, he was sure of it, a modern day watering hole akin to old saloons in the west.
On the way, though, he was having a hard time ignoring the fact that his little mountain town seemed just as populated as it had in the before times. Cars passed him on a regular basis. Business were open, parking lots full. There was only one conclusion – the mountain town had become the refuge for survivors from all over.
“Of course people would come together!” Carl said to himself. “Humans are naturally social! I bet all of the other surrounding towns are empty, nothing but the breeze through broken windows!”
The General Store was just as he expected it. As he climbed out of the truck a woman and a small child came out, the little girl giggling over a soft serve cone covered in sprinkles. Carl Vance felt inspired. If this little child could weather the storm of the end of the world so well, then so could he. With a deep breath, he entered the store.
A bell tinkled overhead. Music played softly from overhead speakers. There, behind the counter, was a miracle – the old man who had run the General Store years before! He had made it! Carl Vance took a few steps toward him, happy to see a friendly face.
The old man took a look at him and frowned. “Excuse me, sir, can you please put on a mask?”
Carl stopped. Frowned. Thought about it. Noticed finally that the old man was wearing a cloth mask over his mouth and nose. Thought some more.
Finally, he asked, “Mask?”
The old man put up hands as though he were soothing some thorny situation. “I know, I know, the mask mandates are over. But I got my brother in law living with me, and he’s immunocompromised, so we’re still taking precautions here at the General Store.”
All Carl could think to say was, “I don’t have a mask.”
The old man nodded and gestured back to the door. “I keep some disposable ones at the front. I know it can be a big ask.”
Sure enough, right next to the front door was a metal stand. A box of blue disposable masks with some sort of container of soap or something above it. Carl, not wanting to make waves with other survivors, pulled out a mask. After a few seconds, he figured out how to put it on.
“Thank you, sir. I understand it’s a charged request.”
Carl shook off his confusion and approached the man behind the counter.
“Please, I’ve been up in the mountains. Cut off. Please, tell me, how many people survived?”
The old man frowned. “Survived?”
“Yeah, the disease. I think they were calling it…Corid? Codid? Something like that.”
The old man scratched at the whiskers on his face. “Covid?”
“Yes! That was it! How many people survived?”
“Well, a lot. Most. I guess the real question is how many people died. Globally, I think the number is five million?”
A sinking feeling in Carl’s gut. “That’s it?”
The old man didn’t hear. He had turned around to face a door on the other side of the counter.
“Charly?” he called.
An old woman poked her head out the door. “Yeah, Dave?”
“How many people have died from Covid so far.”
“Oh, uh, I think NPR said over six million, now.”
“Ah, six, right, I thought it was higher. Thanks, hon.” Dave turned back to Carl and nodded. “Of course, that’s the global number. Nationally we reached a million a while back, not sure where we are now. And, double of course, cases are underreported, so who knows what the actual number is.”
“Oh, well,” Carl said, brightening. “Of course. I did expect a much bigger number.”
“A bigger number?” Charly asked, coming out to join her husband. “Why a bigger number?”
“He says he’s been up in the mountains this whole time,” Dave said. “Missed everything.”
“That must have been lovely,” Charly said.
Carl tried to think fast. So, the disease hadn’t been the planet killer he had thought it would be. At least he had protected himself. Yeah, yeah. He had protected himself. Hadn’t died. Never came face to face with it. It wasn’t all for naught.
“How long as it been over?”
Dave chuckled mirthlessly. “Over? It’s not over.”
“Hell, no! Everybody wants to act like it’s over, but this wave is probably the biggest yet!”
“Why do you think I ask people to wear masks?”
It finally sunk in.
“Wait. Covid is still out there? People are still getting it?”
“Sure are! The vaccines help, of course, but this latest mutation seems to have gotten away from the vaccines.”
Blood was rushing through his ears. He realized he was on the verge of hyperventilating and tried to control his breathing.
“I came back too soon!”
Charly looked at him with sympathy. “Son, I don’t think this is one you can wait out.”
“All those scientists think it’s going to be like the cold or the flu going forward. Hopefully the cold, but who knows. It’ll hang around, mutate…maybe we all get yearly vaccines or something.”
Carl took a couple of deep breaths. “Not a planet killer, then. A…a planet complicator.”
Charly and Dave laughed like he had made a joke.
“Planet complicator!” Dave repeated. “I like that. Anyway, son, was there anything I could get you?”
Carl swallowed, his throat suddenly gone dry. “I…I don’t have any money…didn’t think I’d need money…I guess I should go home.”
“You mean your cabin?” Charly asked.
“No, I have a home in town. On Fisher Street.”
Charly and Dave exchanged a look Carl didn’t like.
“It wasn’t a small blue place, with a yellow door?”
“How did you know that?”
“I hate to be the one to tell you, but that place is gone. Yeah, I guess what happened first is teenagers figured out it was abandoned so they broke in and started drinking and smoking and whatnot in there. Then a bunch of meth-heads took it over. Started cooking. Only lasted a few months before something exploded. Sent the roof sky high. What was left burnt to the ground. That was…how long ago was that, Charly?”
“Last fall,” she said. “Just after Halloween.”
“That’s right, just after Halloween.”
If Carl was understanding everything right: the world hadn’t ended, the virus had killed a lot of people but not a lot of people, it was still hanging around, he had no money, no job, no insurance, and his house had been burned down by tweakers almost a year ago.
“I thought this would be the end…”
Dave shrugged. “If it makes you feel any better, we’re still in the middle of a climate emergency.”
Carl Vance balked. “Wow, are we still pretending that’s a real thing?”