Once the virus mutated, the end came fast. I holed up in my apartment and worked my way through the Harry Potter books while I waited for the first symptoms to appear. Perhaps a silly choice for a woman my age, but I found them comforting.
The Internet was the first to go. The connection became spotty, then shut down altogether. Television followed soon after. I had stopped watching anyway. I couldn’t handle all the pundits screaming at each other, trying to figure out who to blame. And the running death count was too staggering to comprehend. Radio lasted a little longer, but one morning there was nothing but static. I shut it off and retreated to the wizarding world. When the electricity went out for good, I read by LED lantern.
I felt . . . fine. I finished The Deathly Hallows and moved on to my Jane Austen collection. Once in a while I looked out the window, but I didn’t see any people. I hadn’t heard any stirrings in neighboring apartments for days.
When I turned on the kitchen tap and nothing happened, I knew I was in trouble. I rationed my bottled water, but eventually I had the choice of dying of dehydration or venturing out into the great unknown.
If I had survived then there must be others out there. Would I need a weapon? I didn’t have one. I emptied most of the stuff from my purse and put a lady dumbbell in there to give it some heft, in case I needed to hit someone with it.
I assumed that any virus left on surfaces would be dead by now, but I put on dish gloves and a mask, just in case. Then I opened the door and poked my head out. The street was absolutely still. No movement, except for a soft breeze.
I stepped back and slammed the door shut and locked it, sinking to my knees. There were still two cans of diet soda in the kitchen. Maybe I could put this off for another day.
I used to watch those zombie apocalypse/alien invasion/post-pandemic TV shows. I had always assumed that if something like that happened in real life, I would be dead in the first wave. I had never had any desire to be a part of the band of scrappy survivors. Why was I still here?
I took a few yoga breaths and steeled myself. There was no reason to wait until I became weak and desperate. If something killed me out there, then so be it. I hadn’t expected to live this long, anyway.
I trotted to my car and locked myself in as fast as I could. There were plenty of other vehicles in the lot, but not a person in sight.
The drive to the grocery store was surreal. Mine was the only car on the road. The traffic lights were out, but I stopped at each intersection to make sure it was clear. Driving habits of over thirty years were hard to break.
I got a prime parking spot at the store. I shut off the engine, then restarted it. I backed out and parked in one of the handicap spots right next to the door. Then I backed out again and pulled right up to the front entrance.
The sliding doors were closed, but someone had broken the glass out of one of them. I stepped through and snagged a cart.
The back of my neck prickled as I moved through the market at a rapid clip. I kept checking over my shoulder. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Crazed looters? Zombies? Hoards of cannibals?
I grabbed the few remaining jugs of water, some bottled juice, and some paperback bestsellers. I finished the trip with random canned goods, crackers and a huge summer sausage. Then I sprinted out the door and dumped everything into my trunk.
At home, I stripped off my clothes, mask and gloves and tossed them out the front door. Then I used hand sanitizer to decontaminate myself and the supplies I had managed to carry inside in one trip.
I was exhausted, and collapsed on the couch. Four hours later, I woke and ate an unseemly amount of summer sausage washed down with warm apple juice. Under cover of darkness that night, I crept outside and retrieved the rest of my groceries from my trunk.
Without all the city lights, the night sky was gorgeous. For the first time in years, I saw the Milky Way. The stars were so bright it almost hurt to look at them.
I tried to go back to reading, but my mind kept wandering. Somehow the virus hadn’t killed me, but my future looked grim. There could be radiation leaking into the air from the power plant, or deadly chemicals from manufacturing plants seeping into the ground water. I had no idea what sort of emergency shutdown procedures those places had, and if anyone had bothered with them. Even if the environment didn’t kill me, I could get sick or suffer some catastrophic injury. There were no emergency rooms anymore. And all the food available had a finite shelf life. At some point I would have to try growing my own food, which would probably be disastrous since I couldn’t even keep a fern alive.
I grabbed a notebook and pen and started a list of all the things I was going to need to survive for however long I had left. Water purification tablets, gasoline siphoning kit, generator, medical supplies, etc. I could hit all the gourmet markets in the city, too. I would eat well while I waited for the end to come.
Each time I left my apartment, it got a little easier. I adjusted to the empty streets, blowing through stop signs. And I felt less guilty about breaking and entering, the more I did it. Property had ceased to mean anything, as had money.
When I ran out of new books to read, I drove to the main library downtown. At the pickup window, I broke out the glass with a crowbar. Then I scrambled onto the trunk of my car and climbed in through the window.
The library was absolutely silent. No buzz of voices at the circulation desk. No footsteps, or rustle of turning pages. Row after row of books gleamed in the soft light streaming through the windows. For me, it was like being in church. I sat in a comfy armchair and absorbed the hushed stillness. I felt completely at peace for the first time in days. I could live here.
I could live here.
The thought filled me with excitement. Just me and thousands of books. It sounded like paradise.
Within a few days I had moved in all my supplies. The refrigerator in the employee break room was way too big for my needs, so I brought in a little dorm fridge to plug into the generator. I also had a microwave and a bread machine. That was the extent of my “kitchen,” and it was enough.
By day, the windows provided enough light for reading. I was tempted to cover the shelves with candles, for the ambiance, but the risk of fire scared me. I indulged myself with some electric candles, but mostly I used LED lanterns.
In my twenties, I had gone through a phase where I volunteered to bartend at all my friends’ parties. I enjoyed mixing drinks, and it had saved me from mingling. I hadn’t done much drinking in the past twenty years, but now seemed like the time to start again. After a trip to a couple of liquor stores, I turned the circulation desk into a kickass bar.
Since clean water was too precious to waste on laundry, my plan was to throw away grubby clothing. I had a stack of comfy clothes with the tags still attached piled on a table, and not a bra among them.
The final touch was to drag a mattress into the library and flop it down under a skylight. I placed a laundry basket filled to the brim with assorted chocolates within easy reach. It was perfect.
That first night, I had trouble falling asleep. Intellectually I knew I was safe, but my animal brain didn’t like the strange setting and wide open spaces. I mixed myself an old-fashioned, of sorts. I didn’t have fresh orange slices so I had to substitute triple sec. After a few of those, I slept like a baby.
Within a few days the strangeness wore off, and I was padding around the library in slippers and a nightgown, a book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I had more books than I would be able to read, and nothing but time on my hands. For the most part, I was happy.
In odd moments, a crippling sense of grief would creep up on me. It wasn’t the loss of my friends and family. I had set that aside by picturing all of them at a backyard barbecue. The kids would be in the pool, playing Marco Polo or diving for pennies. The adults would be standing around sipping margaritas, talking about good books or funny movies. They were waiting for me, and I would be arriving soon.
What got to me was the random people who popped into my head. A woman named Lisa whom I had worked with over fifteen years ago. She was fretting that her first grandchild would be born out of wedlock, but she was so excited she was practically vibrating. The receptionist with the beautiful smile, at my doctor’s office. She always looked genuinely happy to greet whomever walked through the door. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name. That kid who pulled over and changed my flat tire. He kept me laughing the whole time, and refused to accept any money.
In those moments of memory, I couldn’t breathe. I had to sit and put my head between my knees as the magnitude of loss threatened to crush me. So I would think of people who I didn’t mind were gone. My college boyfriend who cheated on me with my roommate. My college roommate. That supervisor who was a stickler for the rules, except when it came to her friends. That guy who honked at me when I made a perfectly reasonable turn.
When I was too restless to settle down and read, I would pace. I walked laps around the library for hours, until I collapsed from exhaustion.
One morning I woke to a young woman standing over me, watching me sleep. I scrambled away from her.
She held up both hands.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you. Derrick and I were in town the other day on a supply run and we saw you. We followed you back here.”
My heart was hammering. I hadn’t seen them. I hadn’t had an inkling I was being followed. I had grown too complacent.
“We’ve been staying in a little house just outside town. There’s a big garden and fruit trees, and we have more produce than we can eat. I brought you some.”
She indicated a couple of bags at her feet. I could see peaches and tomatoes. I also saw that she was wearing skinny jeans and makeup. And a bra. I sighed.
“Thank you,” I said. She was looking at the bottles of liquor lined up along the circulation desk. She didn’t comment. “Have you seen anyone else out there?” I asked.
“No. Just you, so far. Anyway,” she said. “We have solar panels and a generator, so we can run freezers, but I thought I should also do some canning, just in case. Have you ever canned anything?”
I shook my head.
“Me neither. I was hoping there was a book here….”
I smoothed down my hair as I wondered what I smelled like. I hadn’t felt self-conscious in months, and I didn’t like it.
“This way,” I said, and led her to the cookbooks. While I located one on preserving, she chattered away about their cute little house with the greenhouse, well water and septic system. They had seen ducks by a pond, so hopefully they’d be able to trap some and raise them for eggs. And there were still deer, so they’d be able to get fresh meat soon. And maybe in a few years, they could have a baby.
That stopped me in my tracks. The thought of this girl bringing a new life into the world made me ill. And because I was the only other female around, she would expect me to help with the birth. Ugh.
I had accepted that the end was in sight, but this girl was trying to forge a future. She had probably been a barista or something, trying to figure out what to do with her life. And now she had found her purpose. What if she was right, and this was only the beginning?
I gave her the book.
“Thanks! This is perfect. I’m Eve, by the way.”
“I know, right? What’s your name?”
I could be anyone I wanted to be. “Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Nice to meet you! You should come out to our place sometime for dinner.”
“That sounds great,” I lied. She was a perfectly nice girl, but I had no interest in getting drawn into her little family. As far as I was concerned, there were three people left in this city and it was two too many.
As soon as she left, I ate three ripe peaches. The juice ran down my chin and dripped onto my nightgown. I’d have to throw it in the trash.
Looking around, my little paradise suddenly felt silly. Why was I living like this? I could find myself a farmhouse with running water and a greenhouse, too.
Or better yet, an RV. Then I could get the heck out of here, before I was forced to become a midwife. I had always been afraid to drive one, but now it wouldn’t matter if I sideswiped a few cars or backed into a mailbox.
Why not go visit some of the places I had only read about? Audio books would keep me company while I drove, and there were lots of libraries and bookstores out there. In the past, the dread of crowds had stopped me from traveling. That was no longer a problem. I could watch Old Faithful erupt without having to stand shoulder to shoulder with sweaty tourists. I could drive down to Key West and check out Hemingway’s place. Or park on the White House lawn and walk to the Smithsonian every day.
I could go the Library of Congress. The thought gave me a little clutch in the chest. My library would seem paltry by comparison.
I grabbed a notebook and pen and started making a list.