The world was a cold, stark-white hospital room. A hunched, lonely figure sat silent on the well-worn chair, wrapped in a paper gown and staring listlessly at the faded painting on the wall. So many times had she gazed at the poorly-done print of an autumn forest-nothing but a far-off daydream, a memory nearly forgotten-but still she stared hungrily. Today it seemed even more dim and faded, like a letter too often read, like a legend completely unreal. Did I really live there once? she wondered faintly.
It was her regular quarterly testing. She remembered her feelings that first quarter, so hopeful and so excited. But as each quarterly test dragged by fruitlessly, she had almost given up hope. Only the shreds of memories of a regular life, well-lived so long ago, held her together and kept her sane in her constant isolation. At the beginning, she had clambered for more tests, for more chances, for different results. But now she simply sat quietly waiting, like a condemned criminal. Fingering the all-too-familiar paper gown, she briefly recalled an image of the free life and sank into a deep reverie.
A few minutes later, the usual robotic arm cracked through its compartment opening in the sealed door and extended its needles like a friendly handshake. She sat rigidly in the chair, which was molded to her posture, and let the magnetic strips fold over her right arm, holding it in place. Like a statue, she didn't flinch as the test was carried out with pricking, shots, and blood samples. Unlike earlier quarterlies, she didn't speak to the robot, but sat like a stone, staring at the color-sprayed painting hanging over the hospital bed, so bold against the all-white wall. At last the robot exited, disappearing into its compact compartment, and monotonous life resumed.
A short while later, as she sat in her reserved state, she was stunned beyond belief as the door opened, and in stepped a real, live doctor, the first she'd seen in what seemed like eternity.
"Hello, my dear."
For the first time in nearly three years, Myra Strider felt sunshine on her shoulders.
She was walking down a regular country sidewalk, letting the breeze ruffle her hair, breathing in the fresh, clean air. She was looking around with hungry eyes and embracing the world with her astonished mind. She was finally free.
Her mind flew over the past few hours of her life. How the doctor had spoken to her, how she'd stared at him and marveled at the deep, mellow quality of his voice. It'd been so long since she'd heard a voice. At first, she hadn't understood what was happening. And then at last, the doctor explained as if to a small child.
"The virus has left your bloodstream, Myra," he said softly. "You're no longer at risk of becoming infected. You're clean."
As the reality slowly sank in, several doctors continued to explain what was going to happen. She could leave her quarantine, her imprisonment-the sealed room she had lived in for exactly 981 days. She could now go into the world and begin a normal life, like all those who had never been infected. She could start over and rebuild.
It was when one of the doctors gently took her hand that Myra went to pieces. It had been so long since she'd felt the touch of a human being. She didn't know how long she'd stood there, clasping the stranger's hand and crying. They'd given her new clothing, an identity, money-a chance for life. And now she could go where she pleased.
After a few minutes of walking, Myra found herself beside an old fountain. It had been unused for several years, but the base was still full of glassy water. She gently touched the cool, clear liquid and let it run down her hands. There were so many things she wanted to touch and experience; so many things she'd dreamed of in her all-white room. She didn't know where to start.
The reflection of a young woman stared back up at her as the water settled. Dark blonde hair, hollow blue eyes, and pale, pale skin. As if in a daze, Myra stared at the woman in the pool-at herself.
"Hello," she told the pond shakily. Her voice sounded like a rusty old gate hinge. "My name's Myra Strider." The pool didn't reply but only held her gaze. For a moment, Myra stared at the flickering face on the water and then threw her head back and laughed. Her first laugh in 981 days. It was the most beautiful laugh she'd ever heard.
For nearly all the years of earth's existence, people knew that it would end. They didn't know how, when, why-but they knew.
The end of the world came to be called the "apocalypse." For most, it was more a playful joke then an actual event. People all prepared for it, some in fun and some in earnest. But all knew that it would indeed come. The latest "craze" in predictions about the apocalypse's cause was a somewhat silly and very gory theory: the existence of undead humans who would tear apart the other humans and therefore create more undead, until no more humans were left to be attacked, killed, and in that way converted. The favorite word for this unusual "world end method" was zombies.
It was a good story title, a good movie theme. It made for much suspense and action, and it was relatively frightening, too. But everyone was sure it was completely impossible. After all, it was just a movie, right?
In 2038, Dr. Johann Donovan changed the world. His wife had just died of agonizing cancer, and he had decided to devote his life to seeking a cure. And after thirty long years of research, he had found the single remedy that worked. It was a newly-discovered bacteria derived from certain diseased animals, known to most people as "the miracle cure." All around the world, cancer victims doomed to die were treated, and lived. There was much joy and much thanksgiving. Donovan was celebrated; he would go down in history of one of the greatest doctors who ever lived.
It was almost three years later when everything changed. No one could put a finger on exactly how it started, but almost all at once, the cancer victims after three years of treatment became "infected." After a short and desperate battle for power between the brain and the virus, each human fell. Each human lost control, turning into a rabid, snarling beast which tore into the flesh of other humans and never lost its hunger. In short, the cancer patients became zombies.
But the virus was not content in hunger. It needed to spread, to grow. It infected others in several ways: sometimes by a bite, or by a scratch, gaining entrance to the bloodstream, and in other cases, by air. In a way that many doctors could never identify, some humans could catch the virus simply by breathing in close proximity of the infected. The infection spread like wildfire. To all those who had joked about the "zombie war," it had come.
The virus came to be known as the "Trojan virus," because it had tricked everyone. It had appeared as a healing cure for cancer. Then when it was broadly disseminated, it began its killing, just like the Trojan horse appeared a blessing, but held inside the source of Troy's downfall.
The war between mankind and these rabid creatures lasted seven years, but mankind won. By uniting and changing the way of life on earth, humans were able to defeat the "infected." At last, people could recover from the losses and the tragedies that had come during the seven long years of war. But careful measures were taken so that it could never happen again.
Most people had escaped the infection, but a small number of people were known as "carriers." They had been exposed to the infection or carried the virus in their bloodstream, and yet had not reacted to it or lost control. No one could understand why. So the carriers, whose blood samples showed them to be so, were gathered up and placed in high-security facilities all over the world. They were placed in isolated rooms and tested four times a year by extensive blood-work. If their blood proved clean, they could be released. If not, their imprisonment would continue. While in quarantine, no one came in contact with them; they saw nothing but the inside of their rooms until they either died or somehow recovered.
Many did become infected. The virus acted differently on each individual, sometimes killing the human mind immediately, sometimes taking months to do so. And in rare cases, the virus vanished from the bloodstream, defeated in its early stages. But in nearly all carriers, the virus won.
Myra Strider of Boston, Massachusetts, was a carrier. Her mother, a cancer victim, had died from a gunshot wound to the head after becoming infected. Myra would never forget her mother's writhing, struggling body as she fought against the virus. And then just moments later, her mother had leapt from the bed with her teeth bared and eyes lined with red, like an beast attacking its prey. And Myra's father had been forced to shoot her.
The rest of the war was a painful blur to Myra. She'd escaped to the citadel with two of her father's rifles, where many other humans were gathering to resist the savage attacks of the packs of infected once-humans. The last time she saw her father was a momentary glance over her shoulder as she ran into the street. He was holding off a trio of the bloody, wild zombies with his arms and an nearly-empty gun, shouting for her to run. She never saw him again.
She'd spent the next few years traveling from safe zone to safe zone as a nurse, treating people's wounds and sicknesses. She'd been overjoyed when the war was over, but then came the worldwide screening of every living person. She remembered clearly when a white-gloved man had held the scanner to her arm, pricking deeply to extract blood. There were two lights on the scanner, red and green. Red for infected, green for clean. She had watched tensely as the scanner paused as if in decision. I couldn't be...she had thought. The green light flickered, the red light blinked, and then it was only that fatal red light gleaming up at her.
Whisked away like a criminal, she'd been packed into an armored van and driven quickly to a large jail-like building marked, "Recovery For Infected." She'd been ordered wordlessly into a room by gas-masked men who kept their distance from her. She had tried to explain, tried to tell them that she couldn't possibly be infected, that she was human, that she needed a second chance. Then the doors shut soundly, and for three years, she never saw a human again.
And now, just as suddenly, she was free. She had been seventeen when she had been imprisoned, and three years of her life had now been taken away from her. Now she was twenty.
Small wonder she didn't know what to do with herself. She walked along the street like a dazed child, looking around quietly, not yet truly understanding that she was free. She was carrying a hospital-issue bag which contained currency, clothes, ration cards, and her legal documents. They explained what had happened to her; she wouldn't have to. "Carrier, recovered," the paper stated in bold letters. The picture, taken from her passport before entrance to the recovery hospital, sported a picture that had long ago been Myra. Sun-streaked blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, tanned skin-a knowing smile. Three years of confinement had turned her into the thin, stumbling figure, pale as a sheet and trembling as a windblown leaf. The photo was unrecognizable.
How would the world accept her? How could she live in a nation she no longer understood? Everything had changed incredibly since the first day of her imprisonment. How did people live, now that the zombies were gone? Was it like...before? Briefly Myra thought of downtown Boston. The buildings and offices and cafes. The people on the streets. The flowers and pretty smells. It had all been lost, completely destroyed in the worldwide war against the Infected. And yet, had it truly been rebuilt?
Now Myra wondered; could she rebuild herself?
When Myra awoke on the morning of July 23, 2052, she knew it was a day that would change her life. As she slipped into heels and gathered up her briefcase, she took a long glance in the mirror, shifting her long, glossy hair over her shoulders and smiling with brightness in her eyes. Her mother had long ago said that you could tell what kind of day it would be by how how your eyes glowed in the morning, and Myra already knew it was going to be a good day.
Two years had passed since Myra had left solitary confinement in the recovery ward. One would never recognize her now-she had come so far in such a short time. Her hair was long and honey blonde, and her skin had tanned as she had grown used to the warmth of the sun. Her eyes had slowly begun to sparkle with the energy and life that before the war had always characterized Myra Strider. She greeted everyday with a smile and a pleasant word. Her voice had grown soft and mellow with renewed use. She had become a regular person.
It had been a difficult journey, however. She'd spend several months in a government-run shelter for released carriers and victims still suffering guilt, nightmares, and fear from the apocalypse. Here she had been trained to become a human again, to hold a job, to take care of herself, to live life as she had before. She'd also been able to pursue the questions she'd asked every day during confinement. Where were her parents? What had happened to her home and friends? The shelter workers had promised to make an extensive search, and though they searched far and studied carefully, the news were as she'd feared. Everything was gone. Her parents, her home, even the entire city of Boston-everything she had ever known before the war had been destroyed.
But other cities had been rebuilt; other people had survived. Though Myra had mourned for the loss of everything she'd treasured and loved, she'd also known she had to look to the future. For relocation, she had chosen New York City, her hopes lifted at the promises of city much like her hometown. And although she had continued to search for relatives and friends, even those made during the war, she had never found them.
On her release from the shelter, Myra had landed a job as a receptionist for an engineering firm and begun to rent a small apartment. In the healing and blooming world, she appeared as any other regular person, save for the small red stamp displayed prominently inside her I.D., carrying the fatal words, "Carrier." This explained that she had in the past carried the dangerous Trojan virus, but was now clean.
Myra always walked to work every morning, through Central Park. She couldn't afford a car, which was all right, because she didn't really need one. Her life was her work and the small circle of friends she had made on the job. Alone for so long, she was content to continue her life alone, yet free.
The world had changed after the virus, she thought to herself as she crossed the street in the middle of a churning mass of people. When looking at the city, she could see the remnants of the fortifications and the destroyed buildings, the aftermath of a victory hard-won. Traces remained in the mass graveyards, virus testing stations, weapon centers, the walled-in cities, the small population of the world. She saw marks of the apocalypse in the government, in its monthly rations of Soylent (meals that came in a bottle) and standard-issue virus scanners. She saw shadows of the lessons learned in the war in the guns carried in the arms of common citizens going about their daily business. She saw echoes of the tragedy in the sadness and regret in the eyes of everyone who remembered, everyone who had lost something, everyone who had survived.
And yet the world was slowly evolving back to its old self. Security was loosening, and soon life might be normal, as it had once been. Businesses, even the simple things such as street-front cafes or hair salons, were springing up all over the country. Sports teams were reforming; holidays were celebrated again; travel and adventure was slowly returning. Life was recovering and moving on.
This always made Myra smile, because, like this young, new world, she was recovering and moving on as well. And maybe in a few years, she would no longer have nightmares or be afraid of empty rooms or hate flashing lights. Maybe some morning in the distant future, she would not wake up in a cold sweat, wondering if she were back in the flat white hospital bed, trapped forever in the solitary room.
The morning was sunny and beautiful, with hints of the steaming hot afternoon that the weather service had predicted would follow. Myra didn't mind. She loved all kinds of weather. She loved being outdoors. She quickly dropped by Starbucks to pick up an oatmeal cookie latte and then headed straight to work. She actually enjoyed her job. It was good to have things to do, things to live for. She walked in on time, her heels clicking as usual, and greeted her best friend and close colleague who was already standing behind the main entrance desk, readying things for the day ahead of them.
"What do you think?" Destiny Martin smiled as she ran her long-nailed hands over the smooth marble surface. "It was installed last night."
"I love it," Myra laughed and touched the shiny blackness with the tips of her fingers. "I didn't know it was recommended for an upgrade," she teased.
Destiny laughed as well. "Look at the rest of the office," she said, motioning to the freshly-done polished wood panels, black marble wall fountain, and other new interior decorations. "The desk had to match." Then she flicked her wrist, with a jangling of her customary bangle bracelets. "Come on, join me. There are going to be plenty of calls coming in today."
Myra obliged and busied herself with setting up the desk, organizing her folders, and opening all the computers. "We might get a raise," Destiny mentioned quietly as they went about their work, and they fell to conversation as all friends do.
Destiny Martin was several years older than Myra, with an unusual character, likely the result of everything she had endured during the years of war. She didn't care a wit about what other people said and was close to her friends and generous with her money. When off the job, she dressed like a hip hop star from the '80s. Even in her business suit at the office, her outfit was never complete without her huge hoop earrings and jingling bracelets. As she did every day, today she carried a loaded Glock pistol strapped to her hip and a Bowie knife tucked under her dusty blue blouse. She loved blue, "to compliment my curls," she always said, displaying her bleach-blonde mane.
If Myra thought her closest friend was strange, she never said so. Besides, everyone was a little strange these days. She expected that as the world softened and disarmed itself, Destiny would as well.
Before work was really in full swing, a tall, slim figure joined the two chatting friends and added her own bit of gossip to the news. Delphi Adams, press manager, whose friends called her the "big cheese of the company," was another interesting character. Tall and willowy with eyes dark and mysterious, Delphi always wore red and never explained why. Her long, dark braid was always wrapped around her head, with wisps escaping to frame her face. Today, in her red tunic dress with a wide black belt and tights, she had an air of haunting charm. There was something in her eyes, something that everyone saw, yet could not explain, something that showed that there was so much more underneath the subtle mask she wore. Perhaps it was a broken heart or crushed dream from years past, or a tragic memory from the wartime, or a gentle mind too guarded. Whatever it was, she never spoke of her past or of the war, only of the future-but everyone wondered.
Work began as well as usual, and it was a busy day, exactly as Destiny had predicted. By two o'clock in the afternoon, Myra was starting to feel the effects of her late evening the night before. She hadn't been able to put the novel down until long past midnight, as she hungered for reading more than sleep. Whatever it was-her grogginess, the long day, the heat of the summertime-she was not feeling very happy by the time she picked up a call at 2:17 P.M. She had just ended a call with a very rude, irritating, and slow-witted caller, and her head was still burning with pent-up fury. And maybe that could explain for what happened next.
"Hello, Morgan & Company Office," Myra spoke in a not-too-friendly voice. "This is Myra speaking. How may I help you?"
No reply. She repeated her greeting. Then a third time, with irritation, "How may I help you?"
Still no reply, just a little fuzzy static.
Now sure that no one was on the line, Myra growled into the phone, "How.May.I.Help.You."
She nearly jumped out of her seat when a deep, rich male voice replied, "Um...hello. Sorry, am I getting through? Can you hear me?"
"Yes," Myra felt her face turning warm. Obviously her caller had heard her.
"This is Clark Ford of the Circlet Engineering Firm. I am calling to confirm an appointment scheduled at 3:10 P.M., August 8 with Susannah Custer."
"One moment please," Myra pressed a cool hand to her reddened cheeks as she tossed open some files and pulled up the schedule for August 8. Her agile fingers quickly leafed through the file.
"There is no appointment scheduled, Mr. Ford," she announced with a little pride. After all, she'd been embarrassed-she might as well regain some of her dignity by proving him wrong.
"I am quite sure. Would you mind checking again?"
Maybe it was something from that morning's coffee. "I don't have to check twice. I am quite sure as well," automatically her voice mimicked his, deepening a little in sarcasm. Destiny, checking on another customer's files, turned her head in amusement and just a little surprise.
Without a hint of anger or annoyance, the man repeated patiently, "Would you mind checking again?"
Jaw clenched, Myra ran her eyes down the file again. "Yes. No appointment." Her directness turned Destiny's head again.
"Would you mind scheduling one?" the man asked politely. His gentlemanly attitude sent a pang of guilt through Myra, who knew she was being rude. But she was in too nasty a mood to stop it and replied with not a little disgust, "Susannah Custer is already scheduled for an appointment at 3:05-I hardly think she can finish that one in five minutes. I'm sorry, you'll have to find another time." Of course, there was no sorriness in her voice.
With the same infuriating patience, the voice continued. It was warm and thick as honey, still not revealing a hint of anger. "There can't be another time. I'd spoken to Custer already about it. Our schedule is full on August 8 except for this small slot."
"Well then, maybe you'll have to do choose another day," Myra hated the charming syrup of the voice all the more for its utmost gentlemanliness.
"It has to be this day. It was already decided," the faceless voice insisted.
"Well, why don't you come in and speak to Custer yourself about it?" Myra nearly spit into the phone. Then the connection failed, and she slammed the phone down, breathing hotly.
Destiny was staring at her out of wide eyes. "What was that?"
"That was me being an idiot," Myra buried her face in her hands. "Gah! I guess I lost control of myself. I am so mad right now, and the poor guy was such a gentleman!" She rubbed her eyes wearily. "I'm overwhelmed by all this work, I guess. And no sleep last night is not helping. With a burning headache and tired mind, I make one grumpy worker."
"Yeah," Destiny nodded sympathetically. "I know what you mean; it's the 2:30 feeling. Go get a coffee. I'll cover for you."
"You don't have to--"
"Trust me. We don't want to lose anymore customers," she shot Myra a teasing smile. "Take a little walk and cool off somewhat. Come back in five minutes when your head's clear," Destiny advised Myra as if she were an important doctor. Myra smiled gratefully at her; a little break was just what she needed.
She exited the desk by the back way and walked briskly through the office, dodging past the cubicles to the water machine. A coffee sounded too hot, but a few sips of cold water would do just fine. Born in the mountains of Vermont, Myra was not used to the hot weather.
A few minutes after Myra left, a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark brown hair entered through the revolving door and walked straight to Destiny's desk. She looked up with interest at the intelligent and clean-cut face; he was exactly her image of "dark and dashing."
"Hi, I'm Clark Ford. Are you Myra?"
"No, but I wish I was," Destiny flirted shamelessly. She always did; she was the kind of girl who just didn't care what anybody said.
"Maybe not," the man-Clark-smiled slightly.
"Oh?" Destiny tipped her chin up. I like a guy with a sense of humor.
"Do you know her?"
"Yeah, she's a receptionist; we work together. She just left; she'll be back in a minute. She wasn't feeling well."
"Where can I find her?"
Destiny was a little surprised. He didn't look like a killer (her first thought), and Myra had mentioned no affairs or recent love interests (her second thought.) "She's just getting a drink; she'll probably be back any minute. What are you here for?"
"I need to schedule an appointment with Marketing."
"Oh. Well, Myra's in charge of that; so I supposed you'll have to wait. If you don't want to wait, you could also head to the Marketing Office and try to schedule an appointment personally. Either one will have the same result."
"I'll find the office, I guess," Clark replied, and Destiny saw a little disappointment on his face. She wondered if he'd met Myra, or had seen her, and wanted to see her again. She didn't blame him. Destiny thought her friend was gorgeous. She had always envied the natural beauty of Myra's deep blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and natural golden locks. And Myra was just so innocent and sweet. Any guy would be crazy about Myra if the girl would just show interest in him!
"Just head back through the cubicles into the hallway of glass doors. It's number 112. You should be able to find it easily."
"Thank you," he tipped his head as if bowing and walked briskly past her desk. Destiny looked after him appraisingly. He wasn't amazingly good-looking, but there was an undefinable quality in his face that made her trust him. Besides, he had his height and muscular frame to boot. "Now that's my kind of guy," she said to herself with a smile and then threw herself back into her work.
At the end of the hallway, Myra was just finishing her second paper cup of water and her grouchy thoughts were clearing from her head. The fresh, cold water refreshed her through body and soul, and she smiled with her usual confidence and returned down the hall. In her jaunty, perky step, she wasn't really looking and ran right into a man in a suit heading down the opposite way. The collision knocked both off balance, she more than he. Reflexively, he caught her in his arms and steadied her, and then both of them drew back quickly and awkwardly. Though they both opened their mouths to apologize, he spoke first. "I'm so sorry! I wasn't looking," he said sincerely, even though she had been the one who had stepped on his toe.
"No, I'm the one who should be sorry," she smiled sweetly, smoothing back her lovely blonde hair. Her blue eyes were sparkling with pent-up laughter, and her cheeks were glowing with the energy from that ice-cold water. The man had never seen anyone so beautiful.
"Guess we'll just have to both watch our step," he laughed, and she joined in, adding silvery giggles to his warm, cheery laughter. She was thinking he had the kindest, most honest face she had ever seen. Though she judged him to be twenty-five, she saw a flash of a little boy in his laugh. Her smile was both genuine and interested.
"Yes, I don't want to bulldoze anybody else over." She could still feel the warmth of his hand on her sleeve where he'd steadied and caught her. But the encounter had been brief and was over already, and time was already gone as they nodded good-bye. Somewhere inside themselves they both wished they could talk more, not just pass each other by and never meet again.
But that's what they had to do. And just as they moved to continue on their separate ways down the hallway, the light fell on Myra's gold-plate name tag. His eyes snagged on the thin black letters and he stopped her once again.
Surprised and suddenly curious, he asked, "You wouldn't be Myra the receptionist, would you?"
"Yes," she said uncertainly, wondering why he asked...and how he'd known.
Now he smiled again, with great amusement, and held out his hand to shake hers. "Hi. I'm Clark Ford."
For a second she stared at him in disbelief, and then with a heartfelt moan, she buried her face in her hands. "Ohhhh," she groaned through her hands. Then she brought her face up with a look of complete embarrassment and apology. "I am so, so sorry. I don't know what got into me. It's just been such a long day, and I have such a headache. But that's no excuse. You came to report my rudeness to my boss. His office is down the hall, number-"
His face changed completely as he realized what she thought he had come to do-to complain about her, to get her in trouble, to take her job from her. "Oh no!" he interrupted in horror. "That's not what I came to do! I just came to speak with Miss Custer," then with a mischievous smile, he added, "as you suggested."
"I'm so sorry!" Poor Myra did not think this was funny at all. She looked as if she might cry. "I don't know what came over me. I've never done that before."
Clark had seldom felt so much remorse. He had changed the confident, cheery character before him into a shame-faced, discouraged, and embarrassed woman. He rushed to make things right, "A misunderstanding-that's all it was. I'm sure we can straighten it out." But she did not take comfort from this. Myra had never been so embarrassed and put-out in her life. For a moment, her mind had whispered that she'd found Prince Charming...and a moment later he'd revealed that she was the ugly stepsister. One of the only people she'd ever been nasty to was one who might have mattered, who might have been someone special. And for this reason, she felt she could never be redeemed.
He saw this on her face and blamed himself. "Please don't be embarrassed. It's all okay-it's my fault more than yours." Clark wanted to reach out and somehow comfort her. For the first time of many times in his life, he wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her close until she smiled again, until she was laughing like an angel. But honestly he had not imagined the angry receptionist on the phone was this beautiful, bright-faced young woman. "Come on; we'll schedule it together with Miss Custer." And gently taking her elbow, he led her down the hall.
That was how it all began. One of the most embarrassing experiences of Myra's life led her to the man she'd always dreamed of. Before he left that day, after they had ironed out the misunderstanding in Marketing, they had already exchanged numbers. Two days later, they met for lunch, and a week later, they both knew they were in love.
Myra laughed now about her nasty words on the phone. If she hadn't said them, she might never have met her Clark-even though his work was only two blocks away. And with every moment spent with his beautiful Myra, Clark wondered how this could be that grouch of a receptionist that he'd first spoken with. To her credit, Myra, no matter how tired, determined never to be such a grouch again.
Destiny teased Myra mercilessly. "Goin' out with the man tonight?" she'd ask at lunch break, or "Make sure you are nice to this customer. Couldn't have you dating two men at once," as Destiny transferred a call to Myra's phone. And even though Destiny had never married and probably never would, she was truly happy for her friend.
Myra and Clark's first true "date" was at the Cheesecake Factory, a favorite restaurant to both of them, a week after she had bumped into him in the office hallway. Forever Myra would remember biting into her cookie dough cheesecake as they sat in the warm, rosy restaurant, opening their hearts to one another.
"I always wanted to go to college after the war ended," Myra admitted as she toyed with a piece of the scrumptious dessert on her fork.
"Why didn't you?" Clark seemed surprised. After all, he had. Engineering had been his dream, which was now accomplished with his master's degree in electric engineering from Notre Dame, one of the few colleges to survive the war.
"I wasn't free to," Myra couldn't meet his eyes. She had never told anyone, not even Destiny, about her years in the recovery ward-her years in prison.
"What do you mean?" he had put down his fork and was gazing at her, knowing that something serious was about to be shared.
"I was a carrier." Sadness had seeped into her voice, and when she raised her head, her cheeks with pink with shame.
Everyone knew what a carrier was. Clark stared at her for a moment, but his face showed no fear or disgust, only sympathy and sudden understanding. "Were you...confined?"
She nodded, eyes downcast. "Three years. 981 days, to be exact." Myra tried to laugh, but choked on her own grief. She fought the tears and continued, "I had given up hope. One room, just yourself and an old painting for three years. And then finally...finally I was clean."
He could see that she was trying not to cry and didn't know what to say. "I'm glad. I'm glad they set you free. I'm glad you fought it."
"I never fought anything. I never felt the virus at all," Myra said softly. "I never felt anything. Just loneliness."
"No wonder," he said gently.
"What?" she looked at him curiously.
"No wonder you have an attitude of such excitement...so much vivacity. You are so full of life. And I can see why now. It is because three years were taken from you, and now you are doing everything you can to live life to the fullest, to make up for all that time lost."
Now she was crying. For the first time in her life, someone understood-someone saw what she had been through, why every day of her life was so incredibly precious to her. As he took her hand and comforted her, she knew she'd met the man meant for her.
"It's wonderful. It's so incredibly wonderful," Myra dipped her straw gently into the thick layer of whipped cream. "I can't believe it's working out like this."
Delphi, angling her spoon carefully, speared the bright red maraschino cherry. "I'm really happy for you, Myra. I always knew you'd meet somebody."
"Yeah, but why did he have to be so cute?" Destiny swallowed a few scalding sips of her hazelnut cream coffee. The other women at the table joined in the laugh, and Myra blushed.
It was a Saturday morning in the city, and Myra's friends were meeting for coffee as they always did. Myra and Destiny had just finished their morning jog together and were bursting with energy, and the other six women had gotten their extra Saturday sleep-in, so the conversation was lively and full of giggles. Myra looked around the circle of generous, pleasant faces, and thought to herself just how blessed she really was to have friends like these.
"I wish I'd met him first," Kathleen Winter was saying, brushing back her fiery red locks and stirring another package of creamer into her cappuccino.
"Yeah, me too -then maybe I wouldn't be stuck with Rick," Rachel Chaddick joked as she wrapped her long fingers around her French vanilla latte. Everyone knew how much she loved her caring fiance. "Rick's a great fellow, but he's got nothing on Clark. And who wants a blonde when they can get a hot brunette?" All the women laughed at this, because they all knew Rick Mason was the best looking "fellow" around.
"You kidding?" Myra laughed. "Blondes are the hotties."
Twilight Rusnak threw back her locks of jet-black hair and agreed. "A blonde is a prize. You know the blondes are always the beauty queens."
"In girls, maybe; but not in guys," Destiny was adjusting the banana-yellow belt that held her Glock today.
"Since half of us are blonde, that's probably a good thing," Julia Kealy added, although everyone knew her blonde curls were dyed.
Butterfly Holland finished the last of the whipped cream from the top of her frappe. "Blonde is such an ugly word. I always preferred caramel-colored."
"Or flaxen," Rachel suggested.
"Yes!" Delphi agreed.
"How about honey-gold?" Julia threw in.
"There are a million words better than blonde," Janet Debs nodded. "I was always known as 'dirty blonde' in my family because of these streaks of brown."
The conversation flew on in that pretty little cafe on the breezy summer morning. Myra felt that she was the luckiest person on earth to have a morning like this. All those days in confinement, she had imagined the carefree life she now lived, where a coffee break with true friends was just a regular occurrence. She smiled and sipped some of the rich, warm drink.
However, she reflected to herself, good things could not last forever.
The days turned to months, and soon enough, August was over, and the chilly winds of September brushed the skies with gray. By the seventeenth of the month, Myra began wearing her jacket to work and dropped an extra comforter over her bed. "Get ready for pumpkin-flavored everything," Destiny warned her laughingly at work. "Fall is most certainly on its way."
The much-hoped-for raise came that week, and Myra went over her bank account statement while sitting by her fireplace-like electric heater. Something about the small flames flickering and dancing calmed her, even in the lonely room.
The apartment had three rooms, her favorite being the small bedroom, furnished with a soft queen bed, nightstand, bookshelf, desk, and closet (which held Myra's clothes, shoes, and bike.) The living room had a couch, TV, radio, and small kitchen with a stove, oven, refrigerator, and pantry. The third room was the small but sufficient bathroom. Because the rent was cheap and the apartment was close to work, Myra had everything she needed, and wanted.
All the rooms of her small apartment were painted bright colors, and the walls displayed well-placed paintings and pictures. She never shut any of the doors between the rooms and often had her small TV running in the front room. She did not like silence; it was too much like solitude. That was why she liked the busy, noisy city so much. She was never alone.
The phone rang suddenly from the top of the bookshelf, hard to hear over the blaring TV. Myra left the papers where they lay and went to pick it up. By caller I.D., she saw that it was Delphi Adams. As she picked up the call, she glanced at the red-light alarm clock on her dresser and saw that it was relatively late in the evening. What could Delphi be calling about?
"Hello, Myra," Delphi's wry voice held a hint of excitement in it. "I have some news I just had to tell you. You'll find out at work tomorrow, but I wanted to be the first to let you know."
"Okay, tell me," Myra wondered what it could be as she readjusted the tulip-quilt she she had spread over her yellow comforter.
"What's going on? Are you having a party? I can hardly hear you over all the noise."
"Sorry," Myra switched off the TV and tried to ignore the silence that immediately settled around her. "The TV was on. Go ahead."
"Well, guess what the boss said! He's sending a representative of the press branch to the conference in-get this-Anaheim, Germany!!!" Delphi's voice rose and fell like the wind: a sign that she was very, very excited.
"That'd be you, wouldn't it?" Myra was a little confused. Why had Delphi called her, basically to brag? And especially since Delphi knew how Myra had dreamed of going to Germany some day, her mother's homeland.
"Yes," Delphi was a little more subdued. There was a pause. "But I'm allowed to bring a representative of my choice-and I choose you!"
Myra's knees felt weak and very suddenly -thump!- she sat down on her bed. "W-what?"
"I know how much you want to go to Germany! And you can be my assistant representative, like Cordia Washburne was at last year's conference. You know all the ins and outs of the company, and you know a lot about press-I can tell you more once we're there, though we won't be on the same plane because of short notice. Tell me you're excited, girl!"
It took a moment to respond. "I'm...well, I'm shocked, Delphi."
"You don't sound so happy." Delphi's voice had an accusing edge to it.
"I just can't believe it...I'm going to Germany!!" The full realization struck Myra at last, and she sprang to her feet, and cried again, "I'm going to Germany!"
"That's more like it," Delphi said approvingly. "They'll give you all the details at work tomorrow. Don't worry about the conference; I can handle things. It will just be a free vacation for you!"
"Wow," Myra pressed her hand against her forehead. "I really owe you, Delphi."
"Not a bit," Delphi's wry voice returned. "And you speak much better German than me. That will be awfully helpful. Get your bags packed! The conference is this weekend; I'll imagine we'll be leaving late Thursday. Sorry for the short notice! Oh, I have to go. Catch you later!"
Click. The connection ended. Myra sank down on her bed again, very slowly, still holding her phone in her open hand. This was more surprising to her than even Delphi realized.
Myra's mother had been born in Germany. While growing up, she had filled her daughter's mind with stories of a beautiful and far-off country, with cobble-stone streets and snow-topped mountains. Myra had promised herself someday, somehow, she would go there. Even before the apocalypse, there had been little chance; money was scarce and vacations were frivolous. And now, even more than then, money was far too hard to come by. She worked constantly just to pay the rent and the bills for lighting and electricity: her only expenses. She didn't even have a car. And yet now she was being given her dream and traveling to another country, a land across the sea!
She tried to file through her bills and bank account figures, but her mind was no longer on it. At last she set the papers aside and lay back in her bed. A few minutes later, she was fast asleep and dreaming of foreign castles and airy mountains. The lights in her house were still shining around her, but it was quiet as the grave.
At three in the morning, Myra woke up gasping, soaked in her own sweat and tears. Struggling out of bed, she pinched herself repeatedly. "It was just a dream," she insisted loudly. "Just a dream." And it was: she knew by the pain in her arm and the heat of the lamps around her. And yet the silence of the room sickened her. Her heart was beating faster and faster; her mind was whispering wickedly, "What if you're just imagining it? You're still alone; you're still in that cold white room."
"No!" Myra fought the mocking voices, but she could not calm her heart. It was hard to breathe with all the overwhelming silence crushing inward, squeezing her insides with a hand of iron, pressing on her mind, which was hopelessly and completely alone. Although she suffered nightmares almost every night, this was one of the worst in a long while. Desperately she snatched up the remote and switched on the TV, turning on a late-night singing show to full volume.
The sound seemed to calm her some, beating back the walls of powerful silence. She settled on her soft tan couch, with her feet up, and watched the fireplace heater's electric flames rise and fall like waves in the ocean. Her heart sang with the woman on TV, battling the silence that she so feared, but her body shuddered inside itself, battling something very different.
The plans for the business trip were quickly laid out and turned to reality. Myra hardly had any time to be excited, as she was scheduled to leave just a day later. Around noon, she used her lunch break to quickly walk the two blocks to Clark's engineering firm, because she wanted to tell him in person. As she spilled out her exciting news, she glanced around his neat little cubicle, curious about what "his office" looked like.
"Promise me you'll yodel while you're there, will you?" Clark teased her. He noticed that she was eying the multiple weapons placed on special hooks over his desk, especially the M-4. Answering her unspoken question, he admitted, "Yes, they're loaded. I just want to be ready."
She turned her head away from the all-too-familiar weapons, trying not to remember how many times she had shot some crazed, infected creature during the war. Instead she looked out the huge window wall. "Nice view you have there," she changed the subject. She didn't like to think of what he was getting ready for.
"Yeah, it's pretty good, isn't it? And since we're three floors up, nobody can see in. Sometimes I just like to watch the crowd go by down there. It makes for a good distraction when that 2:30 feeling comes around," he smirked, and she laughed at his obvious jab at her 2:30 feeling. They talked pleasantly for a few more minutes, but too soon it was time to go. He hugged her briefly, whispering, "Good-bye, Myra. Be safe." And then he kissed her cheek-ever so gently-but in a way that sent chills of delight up Myra's spine.
As she turned to leave, wishing him a sweet good-bye, her eyes caught on the picture that was foremost on his desk, and she was surprised to see herself. He must have taken it the day they'd gone to an autumn harvest festival quite a distance out of town. Her hair had caught the sunlight, and it hung like a sheet of gold over her natural smile and stunningly blue eyes. Even the pumpkin she held in her arms was a shining flawless orange. It was a breath-taking picture. She didn't comment, but only walked away, waving over her shoulder. Deep inside, she was highly complimented.
As Myra walked down the street back to her work, amid the busy crowd, she thought how lucky she was to have Clark. He had everything she had ever looked for in a boyfriend...and in a husband! In that instant she could imagine him an old, graying grandfather, walking with a cane-but walking beside her. She glimpsed her future, the future that she had always wished for, with the man she'd always dreamed of.
Myra was twenty-two years old, just months from twenty-three. She was mature and independent and confident-and yet she knew what she lacked in her life. She lacked a husband, a man to support her and love her, a man to hold her close when the nightmares came. And a husband who would give her children, and a home full of love, a home that would never be full of the emptiness and silence which she so greatly feared.
Well, she teased herself, we've been going steady for nearly a month. He could propose any time, in the kind of world we live in today. These days, every moment had to be grasped and taken and lived to the fullest. You never know what'll happen.
And truly, you never do.
The flight to Germany was ordinary. Myra didn't sleep, but instead soaked in the view from the window seat. She spent most of her time staring at the clouds, wondering what it would actually feel like to jump out into that smooth white blanket of clouds. By the time the plane landed in Germany, she had added skydiving to her list of life goals.
Delphi had already flown the night before and would likely be waiting at the airport, which was comforting to Myra. She hadn't been on a plane since near the end of the war, when she'd been flown from hospital to hospital to take care of patients in the safe zone. And before the war, she'd never been on a plane at all.
The airport was clean and lively, and Myra enjoyed the taste of German words on her tongue. She knew her accent was distinctly American, but the stewardesses didn't seem to mind. Soon after climbing off the plane, she filed into a long line of passengers.
"Was ist das?" (What is this?) she asked a German businessman in the line ahead of her.
He explained in rapid German, and Myra struggled to translate fast enough inside her mind. Something about scanners...oh yes! Of course. It was worldwide law to test every entrant to every country for the virus. If the Trojan virus ever ran rampant again, this safety procedure would prevent it from spreading across the seas. Myra's keen eyes noticed the well-armored room they were being filed through. If anyone in the room became infected, the doors would be locked and the infection would not be spread. It would be confined, like she had been.
The scanners were standard-issue, so Myra understood how they worked. A deep prick in the finger with a special needle, and the lights would flash red or green. As always, red was bad. Myra had not been tested by a scanner since release from the recovery ward. Small wonder that anxiety began to flutter inside her heart.
Before long, she was the next one in line. A blonde German man in a green uniform motioned her forward, impatient with her reluctance. She stepped forward and timidly outstretched her hand, not even flinching as the needle probed into her flesh. She'd grown used to pricking and shots and would never fear nor feel them again.
The scanner seemed to hesitate, as it had many years before, and Myra's heart jumped in terror. Exactly as she feared-a flash of green, then a flash of red. Then a flash of green redeemed her, but then just as quickly a flash of red crushed her hopes. For close to ten seconds, the lights battled, flickering and flashing but never staying still for more than a moment. At long last, when Myra felt that her strength had been seeped out of her in sheer terror, the green light shone and stayed on.
The man motioned her through, fiddling with his scanner as he did so. "Must be something wrong with it," he said gruffly to himself as he toyed with the switches a few times. With a shrug, he beckoned to the next passenger in line and thought nothing more of it. Faulty old scanner.
But faulty it was not.
Germany was a world of its own. It was beautiful, and yet so foreign and new and exciting. The conference was not frightening; her assistant job was quite easy. Only once did she have any kind of trouble, when she was served sausage at one of the company dinners. She looked questioningly at Delphi, seated beside her, dressed in elegant red.
"Bratwurst. Germany specialty," Delphi whispered.
Not much meat was eaten in the U.S., since the Trojan virus was rumored to be carried in meat. Even before the war, though, Myra had always been a vegetarian (Destiny teased her mercilessly about her vegan habits.) "Specialty or not, I can't eat this; I'm a vegetarian," Myra whispered back.
"Eat it. Don't be rude," Delphi hissed, and then with a pleasant expression, she began forking small bites of the warm meat into her mouth.
Myra didn't want to embarrass Delphi, especially since Delphi had been so kind to bring her, so she politely cut up the browned sausage placed before her and then discreetly dropped each piece into her napkin as she chewed the sauerkraut. Delphi looked on approvingly as most of the pieces disappeared, though she didn't know how. Myra smiled and kept the secret to herself.
The three-day conference went too quickly. Too soon Myra was packing her bags, hungering for a day of true tourism, in which she could hike in the towering green Alps or wander through a German kueh-town or stop for broetchen in a street-side bakery. She wished she could ask her mother if Germany had changed. She was sure the tight security was a direct result of the war, and perhaps there had been other changes before.
But it was not to be. Like so many others, her mother had been victim of the war, and like all the survivors, Myra's questions would go unanswered. She boarded the plane to America and watched listlessly as her mother's homeland, still so vastly mysterious, disappeared below her. All her life she'd dreamed of going to Germany, but not like this. Somehow, Myra promised herself, she'd return.
Life returned to normal on Myra's return to the States. She hung a large poster of Germany over her bed and swore to return, on her own, to explore. Every night she stared hungrily at the white-tipped mountains and half-timbered homes and dreamed of the vacation she would someday take. "When I'm old and rich," she told Destiny. "I'll spend a month there; doing what I want and going where I please."
"Might take a while," Destiny pointed out, "to earn that kind of money."
"Not if I get married," Myra said slyly.
"Oh, really?" Destiny raised her eyebrows. "To some handsome engineer, maybe?" But Myra would say no more.
She and Clark had not discussed marriage yet, although in truth, it was on both of their minds. So far, they had taken the relationship slowly, with nothing but a few kisses and gentle hugs. Already she knew he was the man she wanted to spend her life with. She believed he would ask her to marry him, maybe soon, and she would wait until then.
That evening, Myra and Clark went out to dinner at one of their favorite family diners. Though the conversation was interesting, and Clark was wonderful as ever, Myra was not quite in it. Her head was hurting, in a way she could not describe. When Clark asked if something was bothering her, she said it had simply been a long day. But as she unlocked her apartment door later that night, she knew it was more than that. The ache was not just in her head, but in her body. Why did she feel so exhausted all of a sudden? She looked at her reflection in the mirror but could derive nothing from it.
Putting her face close against the mirror, she noticed that her eyes were a little red and lined. "I'm not getting enough sleep," she decided aloud. "That must be it." But as she snuggled under the soft covers, in her heart she knew that was not the problem. No, that was not it at all.
The headache didn't seem to leave, not even the next morning. Try as she might, Myra was a little grumpy on the phone and noticed the warning in Destiny's eyes. "Miss Grouchy Receptionist worked out with Clark," Destiny told her during lunch-break, "but you had better watch out."
"I'm sorry," was all Myra could say. How could she explain the feeling that had come over her? She felt tired, as if her body was battling a cold. Her head hurt, and thinking deeply hurt even more. But how could a cold have come on that quickly? She didn't even have a fever; she'd checked that morning. But both Destiny and Delphi agreed she should get more sleep.
"I will," Myra promised. "Don't you two worry. I'll be sound again by this weekend. We have to do that long jog, remember?"
"Oh yes," Destiny agreed and began raving about her new running shoes. But Myra could hardly bear to listen. There was no rhythm in Destiny's carefree talking, and for some reason she could not bear it. Talk more slowly, more steadily, she wanted to tell her friend. But why? she wondered to herself. Why was there suddenly some rhythm in her head to listen to? Destiny's random chattering had never bothered her before.
The rhythm was even and full of couplets, sounding more like a thump-thump...thump-thump...thump-thump. It was like listening to a heartbeat.
All at once, Myra realized she was listening to a heartbeat. Hers. And then she noticed her friend's heartbeats. Delphi's was unsteady; Destiny's was loud and quick as she became more excited about the colors of her new shoes. From somewhere deep inside her, Myra's mind asked how on earth she could hear heartbeats. I can't, she told herself. It's just a random rhythm. I'm imagining it.
But the abnormal happenings continued. Several times her friends had to repeat things they'd said because she had not heard them the first time. And sometimes, even repeated a second time, she did not understand them and had to think deeply about everything they were saying. Even mindless words she found confusing, and she had to decipher them piece by piece, her head hurting as she did so. Eventually, she had to give up listening, because it hurt too much. She tried to shake it off as a late-afternoon fatigue, but it frightened Myra. She had never acted this way before.
At the end of the work day, she was relieved to go home, so that she didn't embarrass herself. I'll be better in the morning, she promised herself as she fixed hot tea and settled into her bed.
But that night she dreamed. Instead of the cold, square room, and deafening silence that came always in nightmares, she dreamed of her mother's hospital bed, her mother's raging eyes, her mother's face in a swirl of misty red. When she awoke, cold and chilled from the awful memory, she found that she was crying. Reaching for a box of tissues, she used one tissue after another to stop the flow of tears. And yet, the hot tears flowed down her cheeks as she let herself remember her beloved mother. She had pushed each painful memory from her mind as she had moved on and recovered after the war. Now they all came rushing back, and she sobbed as if her heart would break.
After her tears had exhausted her, she fell into a dark, restless sleep, mercifully devoid of dreams. When she awoke to the ringing alarm, she felt surprisingly well-rested. She sat up from bed with a grateful sigh and stretched her arms. As she got out of bed, she looked in surprise at the pile of tissues beside her bed. They were dotted in red. As she touched them, she fingered her own blood. "My nose must have been running too...a bloody nose, I guess," she said aloud, confused. "Maybe I twisted it in my sleep..."
But she had been only crying. Tears. Tears of blood.
The day at work was even busier than the day she'd met Clark, and Myra's headache returned after only a few minutes of work. "And I got a bloody nose last night," she told Destiny, "I don't know how."
Destiny looked at her very seriously, which was unusual for the brightly-clad, bejeweled dreamer. "You should see a doctor, Myra. I mean it."
Myra glimpsed a vision of a hospital, of an all-white room, of a white-coated doctor...the words jumped from her throat: "No!" She would never, never return to a medical establishment again. There was so much risk that they would lock her up again! Back into that silent room, back into confinement, without listening to her protests, without giving her a chance. Again with vehemence, "No!"
At the shock on her friend's face, Myra quickly made excuse, "It's the bill. I can't afford it. I don't have health insurance."
"It might be worth it," Destiny turned back to her work with a shake of her head.
"It's fine. It'll pass," Myra said. But she didn't add a usual joke about the busy rush of the day, or the 2:30 feeling. She just tried to throw herself back into her work, and found it far too hard.
"Do you want to see a doctor tonight? I have a friend who might be able to give you a lowered price--"
"Thanks, but I'm fine. Anyway, I'm going out to dinner tonight with Clark. Fancy affair."
"Are you going to wear that new black dress?" Destiny asked eagerly. "It looked so good on you when you wore it to the opera."
To her surprise, Myra realized she hadn't given much thought as to what to wear. "Well...I suppose so."
"You don't seem very excited."
I'm not. Why am I not? "Oh, I am," Myra lied. "It's going to be great. We're going to my favorite restaurant, the Golden Globe. Have you heard of it?"
"Yes, you asked me that yeste