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  • #7120
    ahberry
    ahberry
    Participant

    So I posted this story in the Critiques forever ago. I’ve edited it a bit and I want to submit it to a local journal… trouble is, I still don’t have a title for it. Any ideas on what I could call this piece?

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I found the prophecy on the wall of a gas station bathroom, written in Sharpie. It wasn’t meant as a prophecy, of course. Nobody could have known how true that sentence would become. Besides, by the time the first reports hit the news outlets, the meme that the sentence was from was long dead.

    Nobody would’ve taken it seriously.

     

    I was in the common room of my dorm with three of my friends, sharing a pizza, when Mark found the first article on his phone. “Guys, look at this,” he said, handing it to us. Max, Alex, and I read the article together, then handed the phone back.

    “There’s a fungus affecting mice in Italy… big deal,” I said.

    Mark’s curly hair bounced around as he shook his head. “I know, right?”

    Alex shrugged. “I don’t know, it might be a big deal. The article said there was an uptick in aggressiveness in the mice, too.”

    “But not every mouse that eats a spore gets violent,” I said. “Probably something else. Plus, is there anything on other websites about this, or just CNN?”

    “I can check,” said Max, my roommate, opening Google News on their phone and scrolling through the headlines. They tucked their hair behind their ear. “I don’t see a thing.”

    “Fair enough.” Alex got up. “Still, I think I’ll ask the grad students about it in the lab tomorrow. Seems like that’s some juicy research. And if anything goes wrong… well, I got a scholarship because of my truncated zombie escape plan, so I’ll live through anything.”

    We all laughed. Alex loved making a big deal over how he’d written an entire book on how to avoid different types of the living dead, then learned that he could win $1,000 for college if he could fit his survival plan into two hundred fifty words.

    Follow-up articles were released a month later. I was surprised. I showed Max. They were just as surprised to see that scientists in Scotland and India had repeated the Italians’ experiment, feeding mice the new fungus, and had gotten the same results.

    “And guess what else,” I said. “The infected mice get violent and die once they’re put in the sun.”

    “Both groups determined that?”

    “Yeah.”

    Max ran their fingers through their hair. “Wow, Sammy,” they said with a laugh, “I think Alex might study this for the rest of his life.”

    And with that, life moved forward. The four of us studied at the campus café every two weeks, talking about our classes and work, and complaining about the latest thing the Trump administration had done. We went to Max’s art shows, and we supported Mark’s band, even though none of us liked death metal. I dragged my friends to the theater to watch Alex on stage, and whenever I competed in a fencing tournament or an archery meet, they were always there.

    Second semester had been in session for three weeks when Alex brought us several copies of the latest issue of Nature. “There’s an entire section devoted to pathogen research,” he said, “and check this out.” He grabbed one journal, and flipped to page 148. “Some British med students fed that fungus to a bunch of rodents – not mice, just other species. None of them had symptoms.” He flipped the page again. “But when they drew blood from an infected mouse and injected other rodents with that? Now that infected them. The team thinks it’s kind of like rabies.”

    “Damn.” Mark sipped his coffee. “Will it spread to other animals?”

    “The research team doesn’t think so. It seems like the fungus damages a gene specific to rodents, but they’re not 100% sure.”

    CNN had been the only news outlet that reported on these studies up to this point, but now other outlets began to do so as well. The term “fungal rabies” quickly caught on, and before long, the entire college was talking about the mice in Italy. Some people were concerned. Most people weren’t. The school board decided to rodent-proof all the buildings on campus, just to be safe.

    The fungal rabies studies continued, without any major breakthroughs. Alex stopped talking about it. “It’s not worth my energy,” he said. “I need to study.” Still, I caught him watching walkthroughs of The Last of Us, a game that features a fungal apocalypse, even though he told me he was writing a paper about Shakespeare’s influence on the English language. Then he looked up the mouse genome in our Philosophy class. When I asked him about the research, he insisted he that nothing was going on.

    In early April, I went online to book plane tickets for spring break, but no Southwest planes were flying to LAX until mid-May, well after spring break ended. Instead, they were getting rodent-proofed. I gritted my teeth. How could loose mice get on a plane? Everyone was making this a bigger deal than it had to be. I just wanted to get home to LA and see my parents, for God’s sake.

    I checked other companies and websites for ticket deals. The only planes that weren’t being rodent-proofed and were flying between PHL and LAX during April were United and Spirit flights. I called my parents and told them I would be staying in Philly for the rest of the semester.

    The next day, Max and I were woken up by a frantic pounding on our door. When we opened it, Alex ran in and locked the door behind him.

    “Umm… hey,” Max said. “You’re really jumpy.”

    “Thank God you guys don’t have early classes today,” Alex panted.

    “Why? What’s going on?” I asked.

    Before Alex could answer, we heard a scream and a crashing sound in the distance.

    “Check your phones,” Alex said after a moment. “People are going crazy.”

    We checked our phones, and saw what had happened.

    Around sunrise, a midnight flight from Italy had landed at LAX. One of the passengers got outside the airport and fell to the ground, screaming in pain and covered in sunlight. An EMT rushed over to help him. All at once, the man stopped screaming and started growling. He grabbed the EMT, threw him to the ground and tore out his throat, then turned on the other people who were there. Airport security gunned him down, but not before several more people were on the ground, writhing and growling. A few had even gotten up and run back inside. More people were screaming in the terminal.

    Within an hour, Los Angeles was under lockdown, and all major airports across the country had shut down. It was quickly found that the sick man was a geneticist who had been working on mice infected with fungal rabies, and that one of the mice had bitten him before he left Italy. There were only trace amounts of the fungus in his blood at the time, and they had stayed low because he’d flown at night. The amount of fungus in his blood after death, however, was 90 times the original load. The sun made the infection worse.

    Two hours after LA’s quarantine began, a case in Atlanta was reported to the news. This time, it was a British scientist, and the details of how she flew into the city and turned were a lot like what happened in LA. She had been killed and cremated before she attacked anyone.

    Then there was a case reported in Memphis, a city where no scientist studying fungal rabies resided. Then there was one in Louisville. Then one in New Orleans. Then Dallas. Then Phoenix.

    Every social media app was flooded with footage of riots and infected people attacking. The entire country had panicked, and according to the videos I saw, the area colleges were no exception. Alex told us that a mob of students had rushed the dining hall at breakfast, grabbing knives and plates and draining every beverage machine dry. Half of the senior class marched on PHL with bricks and bottles. Almost everyone else, including Mark and his band, had gone to pharmacies and grocery stores, grabbing masks, bandages, and every non-perishable they could find, whether they could afford them or not.

    “Mark said the band would come back and get us once they stocked up,” Alex said. “I just hope he texts me back soon…”

    Max bit their lip. “Did you tell him to get anything special?”

    “Bug spray and water purifiers before anything else,” he replied. “This kind of stuff is blood-borne.”

    “Bug spray?” Max’s eyes widened. “Crap. Mosquitos.”

    Alex nodded.

    “Do you think that’s how this is spreading so fas–?”

    Alex’s phone dinged in his pocket. He checked it. “It’s Mark. Thank God.”

    I grabbed my bow from my desk and sat down on my bed, holding it in my lap. Alex and Max sat down with me.

    “You should probably grab your sports gear when Mark gets here, Sam. Could be useful,” said Max.

    I glanced at the door, trying to ignore the increasing amount of yelling outside. “Are we just going to keep calling this fungal rabies?” I asked.

    “Probably,” Alex said. “I don’t think anyone wants to admit that it’s… you know.”

    I looked down at my bow and nodded. I plucked at its string, over and over again. Alex put an arm around me. Neither of us had to say a word. Neither did Max.

    Mark and his band came for us a few minutes later. They said that they had seen people acting rabid for their entire drive back to campus, and that their van had been damaged in a few places. We grabbed our backpacks, and I grabbed my fencing and archery equipment, and we went outside.

    I saw scratches and dents all over the van as I got in, but they didn’t register with me. Everyone was speaking at once – we can’t take the highways, they’ll be packed, how many back roads are around here, why did the cell reception cut off just now, is the trunk closed, we need to get to the mountains, where can we buy guns, should we buy guns, just get us up a mountain, dude – and none of it was real. Everything was a blur, even as we ran over infected people and they broke a side window and we started throwing our textbooks at them. When we finally escaped and found a quiet spot in the Pennsylvania woods, and none of us could sleep, I expected to wake up in my bed, late for class and worried about my GPA.

    Almost three years passed between that day and the day I went inside the gas station bathroom, and everything still felt like a dream. None of it made sense.

    And when I saw that sentence, written in Sharpie on grimy tiles, it made even less sense.

    The sun is a deadly lazer, read the wall.

    I smiled in spite of myself. “No shit,” I said. My voice echoed in the empty bathroom. “If it wasn’t for the damn sun, lots of people would’ve lived.”

    I went to sigh, and my breath caught in my throat. I thought of my parents, who called me on the night of our escape. My phone was on vibrate, and I missed their call. They never called back.

    I thought of Mark, and his bandmate Jeanette. An infected mosquito had bitten her a week after we fled, and he refused to leave her alone.

    The overhead light flickered. I shook my head. “Stop it, brain,” I muttered.

    I thought of the night when a fungal person charged me. It had been four months since we left campus, and two since we crashed the van. It was my job to defend our campground, and even though the person managed to rip my jeans and bite me in the leg, I shot them down with an arrow without waking anyone else up. I panicked and ran into the woods. When morning came, I didn’t turn.

    I folded my arms and took another shaky breath. “Really, Sam, stop thinking…”

    Too late. I thought of Alex.

    Everything about him was still clear in my mind. He taught himself to play a Gibson acoustic guitar that survived the van wreck, and always had a sarcastic joke to lighten the mood and ideas on what to do next. Whenever I had the night watch, he stayed up with me. “You won’t get attacked again,” he would say.

    He carried copies of Where the Sidewalk Ends and Falling Up in his backpack and would read us a poem every night. Then he started writing poems. He wrote about everything, from the coats we stole during the first frost to the people we met on the road, whether they joined us, left us, or tried to kill us. No matter what happened, Alex was always there to give us hugs and sing something, even though he didn’t think his singing voice was very good.

    He woke me up during one of his night watches to sing a song that he’d written for me. Just for me, nobody else. When I told Max about it the next morning, they just smiled and said, “About time. I’m guessing you kissed?”

    We did.

    We never said the words “I love you” out loud. We talked about the future instead, one where fungal rabies was under control and we went back to school and we got a house and we had four kids.

    We only had one. Alex died before I could tell him I was pregnant.

    I felt myself sink to the bathroom floor, hyperventilating.

    If only I had shared that night watch with him. I could have seen the infected person coming. I could’ve killed it before it attacked him, before we woke up to find an dead fungal person in our fire pit, before we saw Alex on the ground near it, already gone, his blood covering the ground, still holding his guitar – now broken – by its neck.

    I shook my head, trying to force myself back to reality. I still had my daughter. I had the rest of the group. We were in this gas station to look for baby food and I’d only come in here because I wanted to check every last room.

    A mouse squeaked in one of the stalls.

    I started sobbing. “No! Shut up. Go away.”

    I don’t know when Max walked in. I didn’t even notice them until they spoke.

    “Sam?” they said. “Is something wrong? You’ve been in here a while.”

    I pointed at the wall without looking at it.

    Max saw the sentence, and chuckled without humor. “‘History of the entire world, I guess.’ I remember that video. Memorized most of it.”

    “Yeah, same.”

    “I’m still holding your stuff like you wanted me to. I don’t know if you want them right now, but…” Max held out my bow and quiver of arrows.

    I reached up and took them without a word.

    “Do I need to ask what you’re thinking about, Sammy?”

    “Probably not.”

    Max sighed and helped me up. “You would think that someone would’ve figured out a fungal rabies vaccine by now,” they said.

    “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

    Neither of us spoke.

    “We didn’t find any baby food,” Max said. “Everyone else is outside now.”

    I shrugged. “Okay. I think I can breastfeed Tess for a while.”

    “She probably wants to be held by you instead of someone else, too.” Max pushed open the door. “Let’s get out of this dump.”

     

    Just before I left the bathroom, I turned around and looked at the wall – at the sentence written in Sharpie – one more time.

    The sun is a deadly lazer.

    I sang the next line in a whisper. “Not anymore; there’s a blanket…”

    I wish it was true.

  • #7126
    pookajordan
    pookajordan
    Participant

    Wow. This is an apocalypse book that I want to read. Its real, its not way out there in the forest of wild and impossible ideas.

    When Max is talking, why do you say, “they,” or “their”? Did I miss something?

    Mmm…titles…Something to do with the sun? Sunrise?

    • #7130
      ahberry
      ahberry
      Participant

      I thought of Max as a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns, so that’s what that was.

      And thanks for the title concepts!

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