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by Eve Langlais
Category: Romance/Science Fiction
Description: Brody never forgot his first love, the one his pride made him lose. When the world dies almost overnight, he finds himself drawn back to his hometown and the love he left behind. Hannah never thought the expression, 'Not if you were the last man on earth' would ever come back to haunt her, but when the world's population is decimated by a deadly virus, she regrets her words, especially when Brody comes riding back into her life. Against all odds they survived the plague, but will the mistakes of the past continue to tear them apart?
eBook Publisher: Cobblestone Press, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: February 2011
21 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [120 KB]
Reading time: 74-104 min.
"If you leave, don't ever come back. I won't wait for you." Hannah tilted her chin up obstinately, even as she hugged her breasts together to form a shadowy cleavage. Any tactics from threats to seduction were fair game in her battle to make him stay.
For a moment his eyes glittered with interest, but he shook his head, casting off her alluring attempt. "I can't. If I don't leave now, I never will. I have no intention of ending up like my dad and everyone else in this town."
She wanted to ask for the umpteenth time why that bothered him so; after all, his father ran a successful business as the town's mortician, even if it happened to be one that dealt in death. And if the funeral business wasn't his niche, there were other things Brody--short for Broderick--could do.
"Your dad happens to be happy. What's wrong with that? You don't have to leave." Her lower lip trembled, and tears flooded her vision. Sneaky, but damn it, she had to make him see reason.
A calloused thumb wiped the tear that ran down her cheek. For a moment, he wavered at her evident distress, his face clouding with confusion. Determination made it harden again, and he shook his head.
"I love you, Hannah, and I want to be with you, but I can't stay here. I know I can make something of myself if I leave. Come with me." He held out his hand, inviting her to ditch everything she cared about, everything she knew to start from scratch with only the clothes on her back. And, much as it broke her heart to lose him, she couldn't go. No, make that she wouldn't go.
"No. Unlike you, I'm not afraid to stay and make a place for myself. If you loved me, you'd stay too."
"Don't be this way. You know how much I love you."
"Yes, I do know. Not enough." Her voice cracked, and her vision wavered.
He recoiled. "I do love you and when I make it, I'll come back for you. You'll see. I won't forget you, kitten."
Hysterical laughter threatened even as she swallowed salty tears. "If you leave now, the end of the world would have to come before I'd ever consider forgiving you." She turned her back on him, making her final stand.
But her ultimatum didn't stop him. The rumble of his motorcycle starting and the sound of it receding as he made good on his words masked her harsh sobs.
I'll never forgive you for this, Brody. Even if you were the last man on earth, I'd never take you back.
Turned out she had a gift for prophecy.
* * * *
Six months after Brody left, the world ended with a sneeze.
Well, at least, that was Hannah's theory. Kind of like that butterfly effect people talked about, except this one killed off most of the human population.
She'd been sitting down to dinner with her sister and uncle in the living room--their habit, since the death of her parents in a car crash--when the news came on. The announcer, in a grave tone, spoke of a new epidemic that had broken out. Hannah barely listened to the report. After the previous year's overrated swine flu scare, she put little stock in what the media sensationalized for ratings. The WHO--the World Health Organization, always one to hog attention--immediately clamored to any news source that would listen. They claimed the world was about to experience a deadly pandemic. But, kind of like the boy who cried wolf, people scoffed, no longer believing the officials after seeing their previous panic about a flu that did not come close to living up to its expectations.
When the nightly news started posting the number of deaths caused by this super flu, Hannah and her family began following the daily reports with morbid fascination. Those who had initially mocked the WHO fell silent, in many cases permanently. In her little town that had not yet been touched by the fatal influenza, it was all they could talk about at the diner where she worked full time since dropping out of college to support her sister and uncle.
The H5N1, more commonly known as the avian flu, cut a deadly swathe through the world. No one knew where it had started because it sprang up in several countries at once. Within just a few weeks, several million people worldwide were dead and millions more sick. They'd finally encountered the big one, a flu strain that mutated and proved resistant to all drugs and infected quicker than wildfire. The most frightening part? Everyone who caught it died. No exceptions. Hannah began taking their temperature daily, watching herself and the little family she had left.
A month after the pandemic began, they sat riveted watching the president make an emergency address, urging people to quarantine themselves to avoid the spread of the virus and to not panic. Shaken, she'd held onto her sister and uncle's hands--tightly--reality and fear finally making themselves known.
Will we all die? For one weak moment, she wished Brody were back, his solid arms wrapped around her, hiding her from the horror unfolding throughout the world.
Hannah didn't bother going to work; there was no point. Patrons stopped coming either from self-imposed quarantines or, even more dreadful to contemplate, death. Besides, fear of catching the virus and infecting her family terrified her.
Being summer time, they had plenty to eat from their garden, and the chickens they kept provided eggs and meat. She and her family hid on their small property outside of town, the news their only contact with the outside world. The newscasters kept changing, more and more inexperienced folks being put in front of the camera to relay reports that offered not one shred of hope. Then, one day, none of the channels had anything to say; all of them displayed the emergency broadcast screen. Hannah hid in the bathroom that day and cried, terrified but determined to be strong for her family who now needed her more than ever.
At the beginning of fall, when the electricity failed, Hannah finally ventured forth. She had to know, silence and need making her crazy.
She drove into town, her hands, white-knuckled, clutching the steering wheel of their old Jeep Cherokee. As she cruised the barren streets, she saw and heard nothing.
Parking the SUV in the middle of the road, she looked around. Surely my family and I can't be the only ones alive? Pretending a courage she didn't feel, she got out of the Jeep, meaning to knock on some doors, find other survivors. She didn't even make it one step. The perfume of death filled the air. Overpowering and vile, it made her fall to her knees. Even worse, it had a sound: the buzzing of flies. The sick humming made her retch uncontrollably on the pavement. Before her body had a chance to stop shuddering, she jumped back into her SUV and drove home like the devil himself chased her.
Her sister and uncle took one look at her ashen face when she walked in and asked no questions.
Winter approached quickly though and while they had a wood stove and cords of wood, they needed food. Their summer stash of vegetables had dwindled even with the canning they'd done.
Hannah skipped breakfast and made another trip into town. She stopped her Jeep in the parking lot of the grocery store then closed her eyes, looking for courage. The faces of her uncle and sister floated into her mind and gave her motivation. I can't let them starve because I'm weak. She prepped herself by smearing Vaseline under her nose then wrapped a bandanna around the lower half of her face.
The fumes from the Vaseline made her eyes water but, blinking back tears, she clambered out of the Jeep and to the entrance of the store. The main door hung drunkenly, its clear panes smashed. She stepped gingerly through the shards of glass into the gloomy store. She grabbed a shopping cart and began throwing nonperishables into it. Every shadow she encountered made her jump and start. I wish I'd thought to bring a flashlight.
Loading her pilfered supplies into the SUV, she made several more trips inside, determined not to come back more often than she had to. She was concerned that the winter might ruin many of the items. She wondered for an insane minute as she stacked and crammed food in every available space in the SUV, if tin cans exploded when their contents froze.
A noise broke her visions of split cans of peas and corn. She whirled, her heart racing. A figure dressed in a robe shuffled down the road, his hair long and straggly. Another survivor?
Hannah, frightened by the scarecrow of man that shambled toward her, went to jump in the Jeep when recognition struck. "Mr. Connor?" She approached Brody's father slowly, shocked by his ghastly appearance.
Vacant eyes looked at her then through her. "Have you seen my Marie?" he mumbled. "I need to find her. I can hear her calling."
"Is she still alive?" asked Hannah. "Have you heard from Brody?"
A horrible wail came from Brody's father, and he clutched at his hair, pulling it as his eyes rolled madly. Hannah took a step back, but she needn't have feared. Mr. Connor whirled. With an unsteady gait, his ragged robe flapping, he went back up the street toward his house.
Disturbed by her encounter, Hannah brought the supplies home and, once out of her sister's hearing, told her uncle what had happened.
"He's gone mad," her uncle Fred said sadly. "Probably thought he was the only one left."
"I can't leave him like that," said Hannah. "I'm going to ask him to come stay with us."
"Before you do that, you need to arm yourself. He might not be the only one to have lost his marbles."
Hannah protested, but her uncle, a former military man, insisted. "People who've been traumatized can do crazy things, girl."
Uncle Fred wheeled his wheelchair into the bedroom, his paralyzed legs a gift from the time he'd served overseas. He returned with a lock box and opened it to reveal a gleaming black revolver.
Hannah knew how to use a gun. Her father had taught both his daughters young, saying the best way to respect firearms was to know how to use them and see firsthand what they could do. She stuffed the gun in the glove box of her SUV and drove to Brody's house.
Heart hammering, she knocked on the front door and waited for an answer. When none came, she entered. Minutes later, she raced from the house and fell to her knees in the long grass.
She'd arrived too late.
She told her uncle of what she'd found, the tears rolling down her face as she dealt with yet more horror. One that could have been prevented.
Her frequent trips to town yielded no more sightings of people. She brought back food and filled gas cans with fuel, thanking the gods that the pumps hadn't been converted to the newer electric ones. She picked up spark plugs for the generator along with kerosene lamps and all the full propane tanks she could find for their camp stove. The list of supplies she and her uncle thought of boggled the mind, but fear of what the winter might bring made them want to be safe rather than sorry. While they stored the food in the house, cellar, and every empty room they could spare, fuels and gases were stored in an old weathered barn at the far end of the property. Even then, she kept a wary eye on it, expecting it to spontaneously combust in a huge ball of flames.
Tiny flakes of snow began drifting down the first week of November. By December, the roads were impassable, and they huddled in, their wood stove pumping out the heat, keeping them from freezing. Cooking became the chore no one wanted. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, they had to shut the door that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house and open the kitchen window and outside door. Talk about freaking cold. They often made do with canned soup warmed on the wood stove.
The winter passed slowly. For entertainment they played cards, board games and, once a week, they fired up the generator and watched a movie. Oddly enough, flicks like Mad Max and Waterworld became favorites. They would laugh at the primitive conditions those heroes lived in and pretended to thank their lucky stars. But in the dark of night alone in her bed, Hannah cried. How she wished she'd left with Brody and enjoyed a few more months of passion and happiness before everything ended.
Spring arrived, the world waking refreshed and full of signs of life, plant life, that is. The roads eventually cleared of the snow and ice. Hannah prepped herself for some new scavenging trips. She installed a hitch on the Jeep and, using a trailer a neighbor no longer needed, she drove to the next township.
Nervous, she'd kept the gun in her lap the whole time, her eyes darting and searching the derelict buildings. She only saw stray cats and dogs. Apparently the deadly flu had not affected the animals. She briefly wondered if they'd ever get desperate enough for meat that they'd eat cat or dog like some overseas countries did.
She shuddered. Not while she had some chickens she wouldn't. If she had any cowgirl skills, they could have beef. Cows now roamed the fields while horses whinnied as they galloped, their manes flowing behind them. If the animals talked, it would be like living in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
Pulling up in front of the Wal-Mart, her one-stop shop for all the supplies they'd need, she hopped out and initially tucked the gun in her waistband, but the heavy, cold metal made her uncomfortable and kept sliding down. Uncle Fred is too paranoid. She opened the glove box and shoved the weapon in.
Unlike her hometown, the door of the store here remained intact and locked. Not for long. A large rock helped her in entering and, after she'd widened the space so she could get a cart in and out, she pulled her list from her pocket and went to work. With the aid of a large spotlight, she went back and forth 'til her Jeep and trailer groaned under the weight of the goods. She'd return but with gas dwindling, she had to make each trip count.
Driving back through the town on her way home, she spotted a bookstore and stopped. She had little room left, but a few paperbacks would be welcome to wile away the long hours. Arms laden with books, she emerged from the bookstore with a smile and began cramming them into the open spots she found in the Jeep.
The arm that snaked around her waist and yanked her backward made her scream. "Help!"