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Horror Science Fiction Suspense

I was cruising down the highway in a surprisingly good mood. It had been one of my first days back in the physical-not virtual-office, and the change, while a bit disorienting given the events of the past year and a half, was very welcome. Though I had never thought so before, my time at home, quarantining, left me lonely. I missed staring out of my window at work, talking with clients in meetings, giving presentations in front of people, and even my co-workers. Other than for basic supplies and food, I hadn't left the house at all.

For a moment, driving, listening to the hum of my car's engine, and the music playing in the background, I was able to forget about the pandemic.

Then, I was rudely wrenched back to reality, upon seeing one of the large billboards the government had put up over the course of the pandemic ahead of me. It was a standard billboard, informing the people of the safety precautions we still had to take. Staying six feet apart from other people, staying home as much as possible, not gathering in large groups, etc. The bright neon background and the bold black text seemed out of place among the swaying green palm trees.

I sighed a little, the pep in my step and the brightness in my smile fading a bit at the reminder of the pandemic in what was supposed to be a post-pandemic world. The regular world still looked so...regular. As if it had been untouched, unaffected, by the pandemic-although every person on its surface hadn't been quite so lucky. The startling regularity and how little things had changed outside made it easy for me to forget how much things had actually changed in the world, the nightmarish and almost fictional stories and updates that had played across the news each night.

I remember the beginning of that year when it first happened. How easily we all dismissed it. After all, how were we to know how bad it was going to be? The warning bells had not rung out yet, the world leaders had assured us that everything was going to be fine. Life went on as normal because there was no reason for it to not.

Then it got more serious. Then we began to see the effects. And then it was too late.

I remember the first day when I and the rest of my co-workers had been hastily sent home, for our safety. A feeling of emptiness and numbness filled me as I sat at the table in our kitchen. The kids were home from school, also for their safety. And all of a sudden, the gravity of the situation crashed down on my shoulders. No longer an abstract news story, an intriguing tidbit from the other side of the country-it had now finally hit home. The small, mundane things I worried about and complained about suddenly seemed laughably insignificant compared to what our nation was faced with right now.

Those first few weeks, I found myself glued to my phone. Refreshing, refreshing, tap, click, share. A new outbreak here, a new outbreak there-the outbreaks kept on getting closer to me. The death toll was increasing, the situation was spreading faster, spiraling completely out of control. I wanted to scream at my phone, throw it at the window. How could this happen? How could this be?

But every time, I found that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't let go of my phone. The 24/7 aspect of the news cycle had finally lived up to its name. I was paralyzed by every new story or ominous prediction that was coming out. My phone was an extension of my mind now, feeding into my fears.

Then came the advice from the scientists, the safety precautions we needed to take, steps on how to protect ourselves and our loved ones, the supplies we needed to stock up on. At that point, I was scared to even leave the house. The house meant protection and safety. The outside meant danger and possible death. Two months ago, I had been happily harvesting tomatoes from my backyard. Two months later, I was scared to even step out the front door.

I started stockpiling medical supplies, in case the worst happened to us. The grocery stores were now largely empty, completely ransacked by other panicked people. We began to ration out food amongst each other carefully, unaware of when the next time we would be able to go get groceries would be. The kids were restless at this point. This wasn't like a snow day or summer vacation. They were eager to go back to school. I was also eager to go back to work. Something, anything to break the monotony.

Eventually, the days stretched into months and the months stretched into years. The repetition began to drill itself into my mind, like a persistent whine at the back of my mind, even though I knew I shouldn't be so selfish. After all, I had heard the stories of those less fortunate me, who had lost family members. I had read about the damage inflicted on essential workers who had only been trying to help. And even as the world fell further into madness and despair and hopelessness, as it seemed like each day we were further from the cure, my panic and anger and confusion turned into sadness and emptiness.

I no longer interacted with anyone, not even my neighbors, giving them a wide berth. Who knew who was infected anymore? I couldn't take the chance. Every stranger I saw was a potential threat. Going out in public now instilled in me a deep paranoia and consciousness of others around me, along with aching loneliness.

I had thought that this was how we were going to spend the rest of our lives. I was tired of explaining to the kids what was going on; they knew better than to ask now when everything would go back to normal. This was the 'new normal.'

We were all tired. We were all tired of a pandemic that had gone on longer than we had expected, for a pandemic that had taken more than we had expected from our lives, for a pandemic that required us to sacrifice so much in return for so little. A new normal became a new mantra.

'A new normal' was what circled in my mind as we began to introduce more comprehensive safety measures that slightly helped take the edge off grocery shopping and other basic tasks. It did not inspire me, as far as slogans go, but it filled me with energy to keep on going, if only so that I could live in this new normal.

The energy helped propel me through a flurry of new measures and even news of a vaccine. The cure! The hope! A way to save all those who had been infected! I was happy, deliriously happy, at the news of a vaccine, the happiest I had been all year. But the newfound energy within me started to fester into anger as I saw all of the people who, instead of believing in the 'new normal' in a post-pandemic world, believed in going on with the 'old normal' in a world where that simply would never again exist! I saw those who decried the scientists, tried to initiate a witchhunt after them, dug in their heels at safety measures, and turned their backs on a vaccine. I was angry, but I was also devastated at the tragedy of it all.

Lost in my train of thought, I almost didn't see the stranger that had been steadily approaching my vehicle, lurching unsteadily on his feet, arms extended. Saliva and blood dripped down the side of his mouth, his shirt and pants were ragged and his skin was a plaid shade of gray. What looked like the remnants of his last meal were plastered sloppily across his face, and he smiled at me, exposing the blood and guts embedded between his crooked teeth.

A zombie.

Realizing quickly that this was no mere billboard or warning, but real life, I wrenched my steering wheel to the left and sped off in the opposite direction, my heart pounding in my ears. My tires squealed in protest loudly, but I persisted, continuing to drive as quickly as I could. It was only until I could no longer see him in my rearview mirror that I relaxed, though my shoulders were still tense. His face, so eerily similar to all of the other zombies that had been infected, remained in my vision. It was the same face, the same blank, vacant expression, the same hunger for humans that I had seen all across the news.

Stepping out of the car cautiously, I took a deep breath and reminded myself once more:

A new normal.

March 06, 2021 04:46

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1 comment

00:25 Mar 18, 2021

Great Story, I can relate to what you are saying about the fear and loneliness, but the ending was a bit creepy. Hope we don't come to that end!! Well done

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