Viral Nation (Short Story): Broken Nation, page 1
First came the Second Civil War, when the U.S. government tried to deport tens of thousands of Mexican farmworkers all at once. Then came the airborne Virus that ended the war—and the lives of almost everyone. Now America is a weak and struggling shadow of its former self: where there were once fifty states there are now just fifty cities; where resources were once plentiful they are now scarce and doled out in rations; and where democracy once flourished there is now only the Company, the sole remaining power—because they control the drug that keeps the Virus at bay.
Leanne, one of the few survivors of the Virus but now orphaned and missing a leg, must rely on the help of Alex Santiago, the one person she still knows, the one person who can help her avoid being conscripted by the military, and the one person who swore he’d come back to save her. . . .
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Copyright © 2014 by Shaunta Grimes
Material excerpted from Viral Nation copyright © 2013 by Shaunta Grimes
Cover design and illustration by Ginny Glass, WordSugar Designs
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Every time I close my eyes, I dream about the time before everyone I loved was dead.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t keep my eyes open. Over and over, I’m taken back to when my worst problems were in calculus and the Civil War was something that happened in my AP American History book. They have me so doped up that I drop in and out of sleep like falling off a cliff and then being yanked back up by a bungee cord when I need more of whatever they pump into my veins.
It’s not the dreams that are bad. It’s the waking up. There is just enough time, before the pain hits, for me to situate myself back into reality. And then I’m grateful for the pain because it’s so intense I can’t think of much else.
They took my right leg at the middle of my thigh. None of the people who take care of me look healthy enough to be out of bed themselves, but here they are, slipping in and out of my line of sight as I lay flat on my back under thick, heavy layers of misery and narcotics.
It occurs to me, in a rare moment of clarity, how important it must be to them to keep me alive. There can’t be many patients left in the hospital. There aren’t very many people left at all.
Before my surgery, there was a shot of something that burned like acid through my veins. That’s impossible to forget because a new injection comes every day.
And I remember Alex kissing my feverish forehead and telling me that it was over, just before they wheeled me away from him. Then things get fuzzy, because all that matters for a while is that my leg is gone. The idea that it is detached from my body, but still somewhere—in some containment unit, waiting for disposal or rotting in a biohazard bag in a landfill—makes it hard for me to think about anything else.
It was a week of those horrible shots cutting through the painkillers they give me for my leg before I finally start to spend less time dreaming about the time before. By then, I know the shots cure the Virus. They keep it from coming back.
I also know that the Virus put a quick end to the Second Civil War. The war in the Midwest that my mother went to Kansas to try to stop. That war started when the United States government tried to deport tens of thousands of illegal Mexican farmworkers all at once.
I’m not afraid of war, though. It’s the things that aren’t true anymore that are almost more than I can stand. When those things overwhelm me, I tick off the things I know for sure.
I know my mother is dead. She was one of the first victims of the virus that took my leg.
I know that the government put Mexican Americans in camps around the country. To keep them safe, they said. I know that I was taken to one after my mother died, when someone figured out that my father was half Mexican and that my only living relative, his aunt, was already there.
I know that I was lucky to escape with everything but my leg.
I know that I am Leanne Wood, orphan, one-legged, but not alone. Because I know that Alex Santiago will come back for me, if I can’t get to him.
“I need to go to Denver,” I say to the nurse who comes in to check my bandages. “I need a transfer to the hospital there or something.”
The nurse looks at me, her hands still smoothing clean wrappings over the place where my leg used to be. I can’t watch, so I focus on her face. She looks so tired. She isn’t very much older than I am, and it occurs to me that this wouldn’t have been her job before. She has an odd way of looking into the middle distance that makes her seem haunted.
“No one can leave the city,” she says. “The migration is over.”
“Migration?” I have an opiate-fueled image of people moving across the plains like buffalo.
“Everyone left in Nevada is here, in Reno. No one in, no one out, now.”
“But I have to get to Denver.” I say it like maybe if I say it a little slower, she’ll get it, even though it’s me who is slow to understand.
“I think I heard that Denver is Colorado’s city, but you can’t go there. Not now, even if you were allowed. You aren’t well enough yet.”
My heart sinks into my stomach. “But I have to.”
“I’m sorry.” Something about the dullness of her voice stops me from arguing more. She’s right, anyway. Claustrophobia washes over me. I’m trapped in this bed, in this hospital, in this city. I turn my face as tears sting my eyes, and push the button that gives me my drug and sends me back into my dreams of before.
• • •
Alex will come back for me. It will take more than a couple of weeks for me to believe otherwise. And if he doesn’t come back for me, I will find a way to get to him and the others.
I don’t have anyone else. The people I want desperately to be with are practically strangers. I only met them in the weeks that I was in the camp, but the world has been upended enough that those who are left have to rearrange themselves into makeshift families if they are going to survive.
I have to believe that my friends are safe. That they have survived, even Tomas and Maggie, who were as sick as I was. It hits me suddenly, all at once, as I’m remembering Maggie’s poor face and the way the Virus ate at her smooth skin, that they are probably here somewhere, in this hospital.
When the nurse comes in, the same nurse who told me that no one could come in or out of Reno, I ask her name. She has the syringe, with its thick needle and icy blue medicine,
I turn on my good side, just enough to expose my hip, and the pain of the movement steals my breath so that I hiccup before I ask again, “What’s your name?”
“Angelica.” She cleans my skin with alcohol. The needle is as thick as a juice-box straw, and the pain of the medicine, she’s called it a suppressant, sears down to join the pain of my surgery site.
“Jesus,” I whisper, my left hand convulsing against the mattress as I try to contain the pain. She rubs the injection site, to make the medicine move through more quickly. I close my eyes, my brain desperately trying to segregate my right side from the waist down, as if it could cordon off all the pain and leave the rest of my body in peace. “How many more of those shots do I need?”
“One a day,” Angelica says. “Every day. I’m sorry.”
“For how long?”
“Forever. That’s what they’re saying, anyway. Makes you feel any better, we all get it.”
The pain is easing. I can’t think about forever right now. “Angelica, I think I might have someone here, in the hospital.”
“What do you mean?”
I start to say that I think I have friends here, but I hesitate. She might not care about helping me find my friends. I say instead, “My cousins. I think they were brought here when I was.”
Her focus shifts from her usual middle distance to my face. “What are their names?”
For a second, I can’t remember their last name and panic settles in my belly, constricting my lungs. And then the information is there. “Tomas and Maggie Montoya.”
Angelica makes a note on her clipboard, takes the silver tray of syringes, and leaves me alone with my claustrophobia, stuck in my bed instead of walking the halls looking for my friends.
• • •
When the door to my room opens an hour later, I expect lunch. That’s the routine here. Torture shot, and then soup and Jell-O. A virus might have whipped through the world and changed most everything, but there is still green Jell-O.
Instead, I see Maggie. She stares at me from the doorway like she isn’t quite sure she can trust what she sees. I have to look past the ruin of her face to see my friend, but once I do, I only see her and I open my arms.
Maggie is ten. She’s tiny and soft and the most beautiful thing I think I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t say a word until she has climbed into my bed, on my left side so she doesn’t hurt my leg, and curled against me. I pet her like a kitten.
“I thought you were dead,” she says. “I thought everyone was dead.”
My heart sinks. Tomas is gone then. He wouldn’t let her out of his sight if he was alive. “I’m sorry.” I brush my hand through her long, thick, dark hair, pulling a few strands off the bandage that covers her cheek. “I’m so sorry.”
She cries until she can’t cry anymore, her compact body shaking against me. Her sobs are quiet and internal, so they don’t attract Angelica or anyone else who might try to take her away from me. I feel guilty for not crying with her, but holding her, having her suddenly there, feels so good. Better than the pain hurts, deeper than the grief digs. For the first time in what feels like forever, for a few minutes I am truly happy.
“They left us here, didn’t they?” Maggie asks me.
“They didn’t have a choice.” This is true, and I try to convey that to her with my voice. “But they’ll come for us. They will.”
I believe that, too. With everything inside of me, I know that Alex and the others will come back for us.
When I arrived at the camp, I was so caught up in my own troubles. My mother had just died and I’d lost everything familiar to me. I had no one but my great-aunt, who was already in the camp when I got there. They could have sent me to the moon and I would have barely noticed.
It was a few weeks before everything turned to chaos. I’d come back to myself enough to build a few relationships in the camp. I knew Maggie’s older sister, Pamela, who was my age. I was drawn to Alex in the way a drowning person is drawn to a life preserver. The early efforts to keep us in some sort of school environment were never successful. Things fell apart too quickly.
By the time I’d been in the camp three months, there were only a handful of us left. The last guards loaded us in a van, regardless of whether or not we’d caught the Virus, and drove us through the night to the hospital in Reno. There were no doctors left in Las Vegas.
By the time they unloaded me onto a stretcher, I was too sick to be aware of anything that was happening more than a few inches from my own pain-wracked body. The only person who stayed in that very narrow circle was Alex. He didn’t let go of my hand until someone forced him to so that they could take me to surgery. I think he may have been afraid that someone might take me seriously when I begged to die.
He was there, still, when I woke up again. Narcotics widened my range of awareness but also blurred it and made it soft and unreliable. “Are you really here?” I asked him when I could coordinate everything required for speech.
“I’m here. But I have to go.” His words filtered through the pain and the medication that masked most of it, drawing me out of my dreams of the time before and back to the hospital room where he stood in front of the window. “Leanne, if I don’t go with them, I won’t know where they are. We’ll never find them again. Do you understand?”
I tried to nod, and I think I succeeded, because I remember seeing relief wash over his face. “I’m not leaving you,” he said. “Do you hear me? I’ll be back for you.”
• • •
Maggie won’t go back to her own room, and eventually Angelica stops trying to make her. She wheels a second bed next to mine instead.
Angelica finds us a DVD player somewhere and attaches it to our television. We sit together in my bed and watch the movies the hospital kept for sick kids back before. Mostly they’re Disney movies that I’ve seen a thousand times, but there is something comforting about the familiar songs and watching the stories I know by heart flick by with Maggie holding my hand and resting her head on my shoulder.
We have a radio, too. Mostly I leave it off, because I can’t take too much of what it has to say. It’s a delicate balance, keeping my sanity minute by minute, and listening to broadcasts about the migrations, about the consolidation of each state into a single city—thinking about what that means for how few people are left is difficult.
I only hear Denver mentioned once. Someone talks about each state moving its people to higher altitudes, high enough that the fleas that carry the Virus can’t live. Like Denver, the woman says, we should all be a mile high, like Denver.
Not every state has a higher altitude, of course. Those states were hit the worst and are struggling the hardest now. But it doesn’t really matter. The higher altitudes only make people feel better—they aren’t important anymore. The Virus went airborne—that’s why everyone is dead.
Alex wasn’t sick when he left the hospital. Dawn wasn’t sick the last time I can remember seeing her. Neither were Pablo or Nesto or Gloria, or the two guards who left the camp with us. Only Tomas, Maggie, and I had open sores that smelled like rotten meat.
We get the shots every day. They are unpleasant, but I remember being in the van on the long trip from Las Vegas to Reno and I never complain. Neither does Maggie. She has the same memories.
It isn’t until my own sleep is less drug-fueled and more natural that I realize Maggie cries at night. The first time I wake up to find that she’s climbed into my bed and is sobbing silently against my side, I wrap myself around her and wish, with everything inside of me, that we had never met. That her family was still healthy and alive on their side of town, and my mother was still with me in our little house on our side.
“You won’t leave me, will you?” she whispers.
“Never,” I tell her. “Never.” And I m
• • •
We get so much attention from the doctors and nurses. Angelica seems to have been assigned just to us. I’m so used to being sick that I expect an infection or to catch some other catastrophic something. It never happens. Maybe because I’m getting such good care. Maybe because there is no one left to pass their germs to me.
There is also no physical therapy or any talk at all about a prosthetic. I don’t think there is a physical therapist left. That thought is startling, and I don’t ask because I don’t want to know for sure that it’s true.
Eventually Angelica helps me into a wheelchair and Maggie steers me—first up and down the hallways and then outside to the hospital’s courtyard. I like being outside. I like knowing that some things haven’t changed. The trees are starting to leaf. The temperature fluctuates by the minute between summer warm and winter cold. This is late spring in Nevada, although there should be more rain. And snow left on the mountains.
• • •
We’re outside when Alex comes back. He comes around the corner, then stops there frozen because he is as surprised to see us as I am to see him. I take a breath, and it is so deep and so satisfying that I realize I haven’t breathed easy for a very long time.
He’s alive. He didn’t get sick. He has no scars or scabs or bandages. He has all his limbs. Maggie runs at him, full speed, and he catches her when she jumps like a frog into his arms, wrapping herself around him. He holds her close and whispers something I can’t hear, and finally disentangles himself from her.
She comes back to me, towing him by the hand, her face bright with joy. “Alex is here.”
“I know.” As if I could have missed him. He kneels in front of me, and I’m suddenly very conscious of my wheelchair and hit with a deep need to stand up and show him that I’m not as broken as I look.