When The First Wave happened, everyone was an expert.
“Shoot ‘em in the head! It’s the only way!”
“It’s a virus - don’t get infected, and you’ll survive.”
“They’ll starve themselves out.”
“Kill anyone who gets bitten. No questions asked.”
No one was calling them “zombies,” but that’s what they were - to an extent. Crazed, infected people with rotting skin. Every “doomsday prepper” and horror-movie fan had been prepared for this moment, and they rose to the occasion. Survival of the fittest. Close-knit groups. Kill on site, ask questions later. Trust no one.
And, in their defense, the world did resemble something pulled straight off of the big screen. Highways became graveyards of abandoned cars as people tried to escape. Televisions and phones shut down, leaving radios as the only communication outlet. A rolling black-out came next, forcing some people out of their homes. At night, there was a glow, spread out as far as the eye could see, from the fires built to keep warm and burn the corpses.
The smell was the worst part, though. It was more than putrid. Something your nose couldn’t tune-out. All the rotten meat in the stores. People shitting wherever they found a safe place to drop their pants. Dead bodies starting to decay. The smoldering embers from the nightly cremations. It made your eyes water and your lips pucker. It sank into your clothes, into your skin. Followed you into your dreams if you were lucky enough to sleep that long.
The radio transmissions were grim. Updates from all over the world started to broadcast on the different channels with the help of satellites. China had fallen. Russia. India. Africa. Mexico. Even though most of the messages were relayed in foreign languages, we all understood: everywhere was infected, no one knew where it came from, and no one had any idea how long it would last. You could hear the fear in their voices at first - discordant, staccato, grating - but, after a few months, their tones shifted. They became languid, enervated, almost listless. Just talking husks, devoid of hope.
I was lucky, though it doesn’t feel that way now. When the first reports of an unknown virus scrolled across the news, my family took it seriously. Not everyone did, of course, because the information in the beginning was slim. A few scattered cases in remote parts of the world. Symptoms included hyper-aggression, sleep disruptions, poor motor control, and necrotizing skin lesions that spread like wildfire over the bodies of the infected. It seemed like a media hoax or something so third-world that it would never cross into the United States. People thought we were safe behind our seemingly endless resources and advanced technology and deep, blue oceans.
Still, my dad knew better. He stocked up on non-perishables and pallets of bottled water. He converted our underground storm-shelter into something more habitable, with mattresses and blankets. He let my sister and me bring a few books and small trinkets from our rooms - “Gotta have chunks of home,” he said. He was a proud veteran and gun-owner, so a small corner of the shelter became an arsenal. Ammo stacked up to the ceiling. A few guns. My mom stopped going to work and kept us home from school. They acted normal during the day, but at night, I could hear them whispering about what to do next. How we’d survive.
I was seventeen when The First Wave hit. My little sister was twelve.
We transitioned to the shelter when the first case was reported in the states - North Carolina. We lived in Colorado, but my dad thought it was still too close to risk it. All we had was a small, battery-powered radio to keep us updated. We turned it on once in the morning and once in the evening. My mom collected rainwater for taking “bird baths” and washing our clothes. My sister and I took turns emptying the bedpans.
She didn’t understand - she thought we were “camping.”
Months came and went, and time started to wear us down. The stress and lack of real food caused my periods to stop. My mom started wasting away into something translucent. My dad, the strongest man I had ever seen, grew wiry and pale. The dark hairs on his arms started to fall out, leaving black spots that looked like ants all over the concrete floor. The only one of us that seemed to be sustaining was my sister. She never stopped smiling. Never stopped trying to make-up games for us to play. Never stopped reading.
She got it first.
We should’ve known it was coming when she stopped sleeping. She bounced around the shelter, all hours of the night, talking to herself, but we thought it was a game. Or just a symptom of our new lifestyle. Then, the fever came. Her skin was boiling. Sweat oozing out of her cheeks. Her hair started to fall out in clumps, overnight. Seizures within a few days.
When my mom turned her onto her side during a particularly violent spasm, we saw the first sore. Red. Swollen. Dark veins trailing from it, spider-webbing across her back. She screamed and scratched at herself. She stood in the corner, jerking uncontrollably and tapping her head against the wall. The few moments she was lucid, she cried and begged for someone to hold her because she was cold and scared and everything hurt.
We didn’t know where it came from - some infected animal we had eaten, something in the water, something in the air - but it didn’t matter. Within a week, she went limp. Dark yellow and green pus seeped out of her skin. I wasn’t allowed to go near her. My mom and dad donned gloves and masks from one of the first-aid kits and carried her body up to the yard while I screamed and begged them to save her.
I knew it was over when I heard the gunshot.
They came back down, stripped out of their clothes, and washed them in silence.
We spent the following days entrenched in paranoia. Staring at each other from opposite corners, looking for signs of infection. My mom poured bleach on everything, hoping to kill any pieces of the virus my sister had left behind. My dad kept the radio on, skipping through channels and pressing his ear against it trying to hear what was being said.
The First Wave ended a year and five months after it began. Reports of the virus declined to almost negligible numbers. The United States was declared “safe.” It was time to rebuild. To salvage what was left of the world. To reinstate order. It seemed like we were out of the woods.
We had survived.
But, we weren’t the same. No one was.
As cities put themselves back together, communication was restored. Televisions started streaming. Men and women in suits promised that “normal” was on the horizon. Answers about the virus - aptly nicknamed Sleep Rot - were up in the air, but people were assured that the worst was over, even though they didn’t know where it came from or how it had spread so quickly. Survivors were asked to donate blood for research.
The death toll was staggering - more than half of the global population - but it was still considered “impressive” that so many had lived. Maps of the world lit up in different colors were updated daily: green for safe zones, yellow for places still reporting cases, red for areas that were overrun, and white for “unknowns.” Slowly but surely, green started to fill the corners.
We moved into a hotel that had been renovated into a housing unit. More months passed. People on the news talked about things I didn’t care to understand: resources, censuses, the economy. It seemed crazy, at the time, to worry about such trivial things so soon after a “zombie” virus had infiltrated the world, but it gave people something they were desperately craving - normalcy.
My mom started smiling again - something I hadn’t seen since the incident with my sister - and my dad threw himself into volunteer efforts to clear out buildings and restore electricity and plumbing across the area. I went to a “school” made out of conjoined trailers with the other kids. There were no red zones on the map anymore - only two “unknown” areas and one yellow region.
The Second Wave came two years later, but it had nothing to do with a virus.
Sanitation issues killed a lot of people after The First Wave, during the rebuilding phase. Once they started living in close proximity to each other again, it was only natural for germs to spread. The common cold came back with a vengeance. The flu started attacking usual suspects: the young and the elderly. Seasonal allergies waxed as grass started to grow and flowers and herbs started to blossom and bugs came back to pollinate. Even some illness people thought had been long-since eradicated - dysentery, cholera, polio- started to rise.
Hospitals had been ransacked and emptied during the frenzy, so medicine and supplies were scarce. The remaining doctors and nurses did their best, but it was heartbreaking to see people having survived something so extreme and terrible succumb to the flu a few months later. As resources became more readily available and clean water more accessible, the instances of people dying after The First Wave declined drastically.
But, it was a brief calm. It would be easy to say we should have known something like this would happen, given the circumstances, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted it. Everything was blooming. Progress was being made. The world had a heartbeat again, after holding its breath for so long. There was movement.
Still, with all of the time and effort spent to bring back “normal” in the form of new buildings and clean streets, no one seemed to care about the psyche of the survivors. People felt invincible, but they were all cracked - collectively shattered by what they had experienced.
A few kids in my school tried to talk about it.
One boy said his dad took off the moment shit started hitting the fan, and, afterwards, his mom made them leave their house because she didn’t think it was safe. So, they started walking in the woods. All they brought with them was a gun. The fear got to her, and she went crazy. She shot herself - in front of him. Scared and alone, he grabbed the gun from her hands and shot anything that moved. He didn’t know if it was human or animal, healthy or infected. He just didn’t want to die. He wandered into a church, still covered in his mother’s dried blood, and a group who had taken refuge there let him stay.
Another girl talked about her grandmother who had gotten the virus. How she howled like a dog through the night. Dug into her skin until it started peeling off her in ribbons. Her mom and dad didn’t know what to do. They hoped she would just die - no one had the heart to kill her. When she went limp, her parents thought she was finally gone, so they moved her outside. The girl said she was in charge of watching the body while they dug a hole. But, her grandmother wasn’t dead. She rolled over and bit the girl in the leg. Hard enough to rip out a chunk of her skin. She panicked, grabbed a big rock, and started hitting her grandmother in the head until it caved in. Her parents came back and thought she would be infected next unless they cut off her leg. So they did. With a dull knife. Just below the knee. She said they used a cast-iron skillet heated over a fire to cauterize the wound. It was a miracle she lived.
Everyone had experienced something horrific during The First Wave. Some of it was because of the virus. Some of it was done out of fear. Some of it was simply people reverting to the worst version of themselves - looting and killing and raping and whatever else in the name of the apocolypse. All of that fear and paranoia never left. It was still there, lurking just under the surface.
People started getting sick again after their bodies came out of “survival-mode." Panic swarmed the masses, and it was more contagious than the flu. Than a cold. Than Sleep Rot. Elderly people started disappearing. Fresh graves popped up on the outskirts of the city. Children were cast out of their homes at the first sign of a runny nose. Hospitals were attacked in the middle of the night, usually lit on fire or shot-up. Despite the reports promising Sleep Rot was gone and the country was safe, no one wanted to take any chances. Illness had to be terminated by any means necessary.
The newly-formed police force tried to stop it. Curfews were put into place. Sick people were given armed guards. But, none of their efforts stood a chance against the latent fear that was resurfacing years after The First Wave. Riots ensued. Cities were burnt to the ground. A state of emergency was declared. The world people had tried so hard to rebuild was falling apart all over again.
Our neighbors were beaten to death with baseball bats after one of them sneezed in a grocery store.
My mom, the pinnacle of health, was kidnapped after someone saw her buying ibuprofen for her menstrual cramps.
The same night she didn’t come home, my dad was drug out into the street and shot, execution-style, after complaining of a headache at his job.
I didn’t have a choice - I had to run.
The next city I happened upon was no different - houses on fire, people screaming, gunshots ringing through the streets. I kept moving, armed with a small gun and the radio from the shelter. The few groups I ran into along the way weren’t friendly. I walked almost nonstop for six days until I found a safe space - a newly abandoned pharmacy full of wide-eyed, scared strays.
What had started out as a fear of the virus coming back turned into mass hysteria, and it spread all over the world. At night, I listened to the sounds of chaos on the radio channels. States turning on each other, trying to keep people out for fear they would bring in sickness. Countries doling out threats left and right on anyone daring to cross their borders. The voices of presidents and world-leaders begging for an end to the violence in hundreds of different languages.
There must’ve been fifty or sixty adults and twenty or so kids in the pharmacy, all huddled together saying prayers to their gods and sharing cans of beans from the shelves. Every night seemed to last an eternity. We took shifts watching the doors and windows for shadows in the dark. During the day, the older women played with the children, most of whom had been abandoned by their families or orphaned during the attacks.
War was declared on the United States, but I don’t know who started it. Martial law was regulated by the military. Soldiers scoured the streets and pointed their guns at anything that moved, so we had to lay low. We covered the windows with newspapers and cardboard boxes.
The Second Wave lasted eight months. In that time, nuclear bombs were dropped across the globe. Two landed in the United States - one on the East Coast and one on the West.
It’s been over for six weeks. Most of the people I stayed with in the pharmacy have scattered, but four of us stuck together.
Medical tents line the streets with soldiers and doctors passing out gas masks and barking instructions to wear them until further notice. Being centralized, most of the damage we’ve encountered is man-made. Scorched buildings. Bodies in the streets. Spray-painted graffiti promising the end of the world.
We’ve been walking for three weeks now, trying to find whatever we can. Food. Clean water. Weapons.
My small radio still works, thanks to the supply of batteries from the pharmacy, but most of the channels are just static. There are no updates.
We’ve set up our tents on the outskirts of another empty city. It’s my turn to keep watch, and everyone is asleep.
Ever since The First Wave, I’ve had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. Heavy. Uncomfortable. Solid. I thought it was fear, but it’s something more than that. More than panic or sadness. It’s followed me all these years, nagging and clawing at my insides. Growing bigger and more jagged at every turn.
But, after today, I know what it is…
A red-flag planted deep in my gut.
I found the sore earlier while I was washing my face in the bathroom of some building we were ransacking for food. On my cheek. Red. Swollen. Dark-colored veins creeping towards my right eye. The mask hides it, but I can feel it throbbing underneath. Pulsing with my heart.
No one’s noticed yet, but I’ve kept watch the last three nights.
I haven’t slept.