“If my family’s here, my place is with them.”
“How do you even know this is your Chicago?”
She turns on the radio and scrolls through static on the FM dial until the familiar warning pings of the Emergency Alert System screech through the speakers.
The following message is transmitted at the request of the Illinois State Police Department. The mandatory twenty-four-hour curfew remains in effect for Cook County. All residents are ordered to stay in their homes until further notice. The National Guard continues to monitor the safety of all neighborhoods, deliver food rations, and provide transport to CDC Quarantine Zones.
In the southbound lanes, a convoy of four camouflaged Humvees speeds by.
The threat of contagion remains high. Initial symptoms include fever, severe headache, and muscle pain. If you believe that you or anyone in your home is infected, display a red piece of cloth in a street-facing window. If anyone in your home is deceased, display a black piece of cloth in a street-facing window.
CDC personnel will assist as soon as they are able.
Stay tuned for further details.
Amanda looks at me.
“Why aren’t you turning around?”
There’s nowhere to park on my block, so I leave the car in the middle of the street with the engine running.
“You’re out of your fucking mind,” Amanda says.
I point toward the brownstone with a red skirt and black sweater hanging from the window of the master bedroom.
“That’s my home, Amanda.”
“Just hurry. And be safe, please.”
I step out of the car.
It’s so very quiet, the streets blue in the dusk.
One block up, I glimpse pale figures dragging themselves down the middle of the road.
I reach the curb.
The power lines are silent, the light emanating from inside the houses softer than it should be.
There’s no power in my neighborhood.
Climbing the steps to the front door, I peer through the large window that looks in on the dining room.
It’s darkness and gloom inside.
After a long time, a shadow emerges from the kitchen, trudging slowly past the dining-room table toward the front door.
My mouth runs dry.
I shouldn’t be here.
This isn’t even my home.
The chandelier is wrong.
So is the Van Gogh print above the hearth.
I hear three locks click back.
The door cracks open less than an inch, and a waft from inside creeps out that doesn’t smell anything like my home.
All sickness and death.
Daniela holds a candle that trembles in her grasp.
Even in the low light, I can see that every square inch of her exposed skin is blanketed with bumps.
Her eyes look black.
Only slivers of white remain.
She says, “Jason?” Her voice is soft and wet. Tears run from her eyes. “Oh my God. Is it you?”
She pulls the door open and staggers toward me, unsteady on her feet.
It’s a heart-crushing thing to feel revulsion for the one you love.
I take a step back.
Sensing my horror, she stops herself.
“How is this possible?” she rasps. “You died.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A week ago, they carried you out of here in a body bag full of blood.”
“Where’s Charlie?” I ask.
She shakes her head, and as the tears stream, coughs a bloody sob into the bend of her elbow.
“Dead?” I ask.
“No one’s come to get him. He’s still up in his room. He’s rotting up there, Jason.”
For a moment, she loses her balance, then catches herself on the door frame.
“Are you real?” she asks.
Am I real?
What a question.
I can’t speak.
My throat aches with grief.
Tears begin to fill my eyes.
As much as I pity her, the awful truth is that I’m scared of her, my self-preservation recoiling in horror.
Amanda calls from the car, “Someone’s coming!”
I glance up the street, see a pair of headlights rolling down through the darkness.
“Jason, I will fucking leave you!” Amanda shouts.
“Who is that?” Daniela asks.
The rumble of the approaching engine sounds like a diesel.
Amanda was right. I should have turned around the moment I realized how dangerous this place might be.
This isn’t my world.
And still, my heart feels tethered to the second floor of this house in a bedroom where some version of my son lies dead.
I want to rush up there and carry him out, but it would be my death.
I move back down the steps toward the street as a Humvee pulls to a stop in the road, ten feet from the bumper of the car we boosted in the South Side.
It’s covered in various insignia—Red Cross, National Guard, CDC.
Amanda is leaning out her window.
“What the hell, Jason?”
I wipe my eyes.
“My son is dead in there. Daniela is dying.”
The front passenger door of the Humvee opens, and a figure in a black biohazard suit and gas mask steps out and sights me down with an assault rifle.
The voice projected through the mask belongs to a woman.
She says, “Stop right there.”
I instinctively raise my hands.
Next, she swings the rifle toward the windshield of the Cutlass Ciera and walks toward the car.
Says to Amanda, “Shut that engine off.”
Amanda reaches across the center console and kills the ignition as the driver of the Humvee climbs out.
I motion to Daniela, who’s standing on the porch, wavering on her feet.
“My wife is very ill. My son is dead upstairs.”
The driver stares up through his mask at the façade of the brownstone.
“You’ve got the colors properly displayed. Someone will be along to—”
“She needs medical attention right now.”
“Is this your car?”
“Where were you planning to go?”
“I just wanted to get my wife to some people who could help her. Aren’t there any hospitals or—”
“Wait,” he snaps.
The driver steps onto the sidewalk and climbs the stairs to where Daniela is now sitting on the highest step, leaning against the railing.