“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Your uncle and I are perfectly safe.”
On the other end of the video chat, Michael’s oldest daughter Sammy twisted her mouth into a frown. “Are you sure about that, dad? News says whatever this virus is, it’s infected a lot more people closer to the east coast,” She said.
Michael relaxed back in his chair with a sigh. “Yeah, but the cops already rolled out and handled the worst of it, detaining the worst offenders.” Or shot, if push came to shove. “How are you, supergirl? Did your gymnastics performance last night go well?”
Sammy nodded. “Oh yeah, it was great. If it was allowed I’d totally be able to base a four high, but coach keeps talking about insurance. Course, on the way home mom ran over one of those sick dudes, so-”
“I’m sorry, she did what?”
The screen went blurry as the phone was snatched from Sammy’s hand. Now it was focused on Marilyn, her dark hair tied back in a high bun and her typically beautiful smile now looked a bit sheepish. “I was going to bring it up when it was my turn for to talk to you, babe, I promise,” She said.
“Mmhmm,” Michael cocked an eyebrow, “And you wouldn’t have saved it for when I got home because you don’t want to worry me?”
Marilyn laughed. “Okay, maybe. But everything’s fine. Guy was so out of it he barely even realized what happened. Tried to attack me but he missed and I just legged it back to the car. 911 literally told me to go home. Crazy, huh?” She glanced over at Sammy, who huffed but took the hint and left the room. “Honestly, I’m still a bit shook up. These people, whatever the hell this disease is… I’m only keeping it together because if I lose it, then Sammy loses it, and then who’s taking care of Kailey and Tricia?”
Michael sighed and ran his thumb along the screen, trying to squash down that yearning in his chest to be with her right now. “You’re doing great. I love you, and I promise I’ll be home as soon as I can. Right now anyone with any amount of authority is recommending keeping travel to a minimum, and apparently one of the highest contagion zones is at airports so I think I’ll pass on that for as long as I can. Can’t be coming home and wanting to eat your face, now can I?”
Marilyn shook her head, but at least her smile was more genuine. “No, that sounds pretty bleak. Just- stay safe, all right babe? I’d say make a road trip but I imagine traffic’s a nightmare out of most cities right now.”
“I’ll stay safe as long as I got someone to come home to.”
“God, that was so corny,” Marilyn giggled, sounding like a much younger woman than she was, “But thank you. I’ll hold down the fort until you’re home. We should video chat though, every day until you’re on the way home?”
Michael nodded. “Agreed… and look at that, I see someone behind you.”
Marilyn yelped when she turned to see Sammy holding Tricia, Kailey tucked behind her sister’s leg. Tricia and Kailey already looked so much like Marilyn, inheriting her lighter brown skin, while Sammy had those soft corkscrew coils that bounced freely around her ears and a darker complexion. Michael used to have hair much closer to that before he kept it cropped close to his scalp. Looked much better on his daughter, anyway.
Sammy waved at the camera and Tricia mirrored the action. “Hi dad, guess who else wants to say hi?” His eldest daughter asking.
Kailey bounced up to the phone and waved, her beaded braids clacking together with her excited movements. “Daddy! Where’s Uncle Jon?!” She piped up with.
“Oh, is that all you care about? Seeing Uncle Jon?” Michael gasped, mock offended as Kailey giggled.
“Nooooo! I love you, daddy!” Kailey grinned, that gap where she lost one of her front teeth honestly one of the cutest things on God’s green earth. “But where’s Uncle Jon?”
“Just picking up some groceries from the store, he’ll be back in a bit,” Michael glanced at the clock, trying not to be too paranoid over it already being an hour, “How are you, Kailey?”
Kailey shot two thumbs up before doing that silly dance that Sammy had explained was called ‘flossing’. Michael snorted and buried his face in one of his hands, unable to stop from chuckling while Sammy just rolled her eyes. “That’s your answer? Well all right then. Heeeyyy, Triciiaaa, look at daddy!”
Tricia just stared blankly, pointing one lil finger at the camera and sagely responding with, “Da?”
Michael could hear Marilyn laughing in the background. “Yes, it’s daddy, hi baby girl!”
Sammy snickered before readjusting the little girl on her hip. “You’re such a dork dad,” She said.
Michael was about to respond when he heard the door slam open and he turned his head to see Jon precariously balancing several plastic bags. Internally sighing with relief, he got up and showed the girls their uncle. “See? Uncle Jon’s here!”
Both Kailey and Sammy cheered while Jon did his best to smile as he stumbled to the table and dropped everything off. “Decided to pick up some… extra things, hey girls! How are my favorite nieces in the whole world?”
“Mom hit someone with her car!” Kailey piped up, Michael hearing his wife quietly groan.
“Nice! Ten pointer or twenty?” Jon asked, digging through one of the bags to pull out a sparkling water and take a swig from it.
Marilyn scoffed before turning the phone back to her. “Nice to see you too, Jon. Hope to be seeing you soon,” She said.
“I’ll probably zip over with the small fry when we get the all clear,” Jon shrugged, “And I’ll bring the girls presents, don’t worry.”
Michael could pick out Kailey and Sammy cheering while Marilyn bit the inside of her lip to hide her laughter. “All right, well we got some Sunday cleaning to do, so come on, girls. We love you and we’ll see you soon?”
“Without a doubt. Call you tomorrow, love you all!” Michael said before clicking the hang up button. The screen froze for just a second on his family, his wife smiling, Kailey and Sammy waving while Tricia gnawed on whatever ring toy she had clutched in her grasp.
Sighing, he slipped his phone back in his pocket and went to start putting groceries away. “No beer?” He asked.
“Twenty weeks sober on Wednesday,” Jon said, lifting up the water bottle in a ‘cheers’ motion. “AA’s really working for me, but I don’t think I’ll be going this week.”
Michael snorted. “Yeah, I think this would be a great week to skip. What else you get?” He asked as he started taking various frozen meals out of a bag.
“Lots of canned food, dog food, stuff to restock the first aid kit, some more gun ammo-”
“Whoa, sure the ammo isn’t jumping the gun? Pardon the expression.”
Jon chuckled before shaking his head. “No, I don’t think so. Just got a bad feeling that this isn’t over yet,” He glanced outside. “I mean, they’re gone right now, but you saw that guy in the parking lot this morning. That was fucked up.”
Michael barely repressed a shudder. “Point made. God, I really should be going home right now,” He said.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Jon shook a can of green beans in his general direction, “Odds are I’m just being paranoid and it’ll all be fine in a week. In the mean time, we chill in my apartment and take care of my neighbor’s dog. How is Barley, anyway?”
Michael nodded towards the lazy boy chair, where Barley had curled up and was peacefully snoring. “Already took him out for bathroom. He’s a good dog, he just goes to the door and barks when he needs to go. Think he’s never getting off that chair though,” he said.
Jon stacked up more cans in the pantry. “He can keep it. He’s probably missing his owner enough right now, isn’t that right boy?” He glanced over at Barley, who just huffed and turned over in his sleep. “… Maybe not, he doesn’t strike me as the smartest pooch.”
Michael shook his head and was about to respond when he heard a knock at the door. Barley’s head immediately shot up, the dog yawning before sliding off the chair and walking up to the door, cocking his head to the side. Jon whistled and Barley immediately darted back to his side. “I’ll get the door, you keep a hold on Barley. I’m not allowed to have a dog without paying extra on the lease.”
Jon strode up to the door and cracked it open, relaxing when he saw his landlord. “Oh, hey Nate, anything wrong?” He asked.
The older man shook his head. “Just checking up on everyone after what happened last night. Swung by Emma’s place and she didn’t answer, she all right?” He asked.
The once relaxed Barley changed almost immediately as he heard the man’s voice. Michael watched as the dog’s ears stood straight up and eyes laser focused on the door.
“Emma? Girl down the hall?” Jon grimaced. “Oh, shit, sorry, she got hurt last night. Some bastard took a chunk out of her, I had to drive her to the emergency room.”
Nate nodded and it was then Jon noticed something wasn’t right. His landlord was a frail man already, but he was puffing and wheezing like he’d run a marathon, leaning against the door frame to keep himself upright. “Oh… oh that’s a shame. I know how that feels,” Nate said before he pulled up his sleeve. Jon balked first at the smell of rot.
Jon coughed as he leaned away from his landlord, unable to tear his eyes away from the obvious bite mark on Nate’s arm, the teeth marks now black with this sickly green and red ooze caked on it. The skin going up to his elbow was now a bloodless shade of gray, his black fingertips occasionally twitching.
The alert Barley was now on aggressive, growling and the hair on his neck raising up. Michael had to loop his arm through the dog’s collar to keep him from launching at the door. Thankfully Nate didn’t seem to notice, the man coughing as he pulled his sleeve back over his actually decaying arm. “One got me yesterday, already I’m looking like this. Unfortunate, ain’t it?”
Jon nodded, still catching whiffs of decay. “Yeah, you should definitely go get that looked at, Nate. You’re not looking so good,” He said, trying to sound casual.
Nate waved off Jon’s concern. “Just need to keep applying antibiotic. Hospital’s already got enough to worry about. Anyway, have a good day, Jon,” with that, the landlord ambled down the hall and knocked on the next door.
Jon shut the door, and on second thought slid shut the deadbolt and slid the chain into place. “… He’s not looking so good,” Jon said before turning.
Michael finally let go of Barley, who bolted for the door and sat right in front of it, continuing to quietly growl. “Jesus, if I didn’t have a grip on his collar he would’ve ripped Nate a new one,” Michael said, waving out his arm.
Jon sighed before plopping down on the couch. “… Michael, I think my landlord’s infected. Because he was bitten by one of those people out there,” He said.
Michael frowned as he sat down next to Jon. “Like a zombie?” He asked.
Jon nodded. “Yeah, you didn’t see it, but did you smell it?”
“Smelled like the roadkill we’d find as kids,” Michael quietly gagged, “But that’s… zombies belong in Night of the Living Dead. This isn’t zombies.”
“You got a better comparison?” Jon glanced over at Barley, who had now planted himself firmly by the door. “Christ, old bastard’s too stubborn to go to the hospital too. He’s going to get someone else killed.”
Michael swallowed before another thought occurred to him. “What about Emma?” He asked.
Jon stared at his hands before shaking his head. “I think it’s safe to say she’s already gone. If she isn’t, she will be soon. Think I was being paranoid now?”
Michael shook his head.