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Zombies North of Normal (02)

Chapter Two: A New Normal

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Bella was very vocal about Jackie’s long departure that afternoon. She smiled back at her feline companion and answered her by pulling a can of salmon from her backpack. Upon seeing the can, Bella chirped in excitement. Tiger stretched out his back from his place of repose utop the dresser.

“I didn’t forget about you two,” she said reaching for the can opener.

With the click of it, both cats begged for the food and she didn’t keep her precious pets waiting. Skin, meat, juices and all slid from the can into their bowls which they eagerly devoured. Now that they had been tended to, she set about preparing her own meal.

“I will also be having fish,” she said producing a large can of tuna along with a small jar of pickles and some packets of mayonnaise. Sitting at her desk, she opened the tuna and using a fork dished it into a ceramic bowl. Then she opened each mayonnaise packet, taking care to squeeze the entire contents of each into the bowl. She knew she needed all the calories she could get. With her pocket knife, she carefully sliced and diced the pickles into relish and added it to her dish.

“Voila,” she announced to her cats who were still devouring their dinner. “Even the Apocalypse can’t stop me from making tuna salad.”

She didn’t know it was possible, but she appreciated her feline companions now more than ever. Even before the world ended, she relied on them for affection and the sense of feeling needed. Now it seemed, they might be her only conversation partners for the rest of her days. Jackie was entirely comfortable with that knowledge.

People had not been kind to her. She had been raped, beaten, robbed, and left for dead – and that was before people started eating each other. That’s how she ended up in the shelter. When she made her daily call asking if they had room, this time she made it from the phone in her exam room at the hospital. They managed to find space for her that day.

The first week or two sleeping in her car wasn’t so bad. It was when the other homeless began recognizing her and her vehicle that the problems started. Even though it was over ten years old, the car was in good condition and looked sporty. So the other homeless thought she made a good target. It started with a tap on her window at four in the morning asking for a cigarette and escalated to her being dragged out of her seat just before dawn and being beaten, raped, and robbed. Fortunately, they didn’t take her flip phone and she was able to dial for help once she regained consciousness.

The most unsettling thing of all this wasn’t the rape – she had been raped before. It wasn’t the beating or the robbery either. She felt good about how strongly she had fought back. What bothered her most was knowing that her husband was sleeping soundly in his bed just across the river in Naperville just as he had since they lost their apartment in January.

It wasn’t until after he had moved all his belongings, including the queen-size bed, out of their apartment, that he finally told her that he had slept with his sister. She was flabbergasted to say the least. Her sister purported herself to be a wholesome woman; a doting wife, mother of two, and a flourishing career as a Speech Language Pathologist with a specialty of working with children with developmental disabilities. She was an active member in her church and was always “too busy” to spend time with her older sister – even when she was told that she was needed.

Jackie doubted she would ever forgive her sister and it wasn’t sleeping with her husband that needed forgiving the most. It was the fact that she never told her. She also begrudged Ricky for that. He had told his “best friend” Collin Gundersen. But he hadn’t told her until he had all but made his escape from her life.  She had mistakenly thought that she was Ricky’s best friend until that harsh reality slapped her in the face like a frozen chicken.

Even knowing that her sister was likely dead didn’t soften her heart any. Christie had moved herself and her family into Chicago to help improverished children with disabilities. There, she established a private practice and she had developed quite a reputation for herself if the Chicago Business Journal was to be believed.

If things were this bad in Aurora, they were undoubtedly worse the closer you got to the heart of the Midwest’s most thriving metropolis. The outbreak had started on the west coast in southern California. The media said the summer heat was to blame for the bizarre illness that was inundating hospitals all over Las Angeles and Santa Clarita. Some internet commentators claimed it was a promotional stunt for Drew Barrymore’s show, the Santa Clarita Diet – a show Jackie couldn’t stand, watching it for only twenty minutes before switching back to rewatching Orange is the New Black.

Within a few days, the contagion had spread all the way up to Vancouver and it wasn’t long before someone infected got on a plane and brought it to New York where it spread like wildfire. By the end of the week, it was rapidly closing in on the Midwest. And within two weeks, there was no place on the continent you could go to escape the plague of the undead.

Jackie recognized it for what it was almost immediately. Thanks to her and Dustin’s preparatory talks, she knew exactly what to do. While the other women in the shelter continued to smoke cigarettes and gossip about one another, she went the grocery store and spent everything she had on dehydrated food, canned goods, bottled water, and cat food. She also took possession of every empty bottle she could get her hands on, filling it with potable water and stockpiling it in her room.

She stopped by her friend Jessica’s house to pick up a shelf and cooler she had stored in their garage. Hoping to warn them of the impending Apocalypse, she was informed by her son Clarence that Jessica and Bill were out of town and they had taken their two-year old daughter with them. Uncharacteristically, both of their phones were off. She warned Clarence anyway of what was to come and urged him to prepare himself – reinforce the windows and doors, stockpile supplies, and build as good a fence as he could around the property. He laughed, thinking it was a joke.

But she didn’t have time to impress upon him the reality they would both soon face – and his parents even sooner as they had driven out to Seattle to visit Jessica’s former hometown. Jackie had her own preparations to make and left Clarence to tend to (or ignore) his own defenses.

Her car was kept with a full tank of fuel with an empty gas can in the trunk. There, she also stored more food that she couldn’t hide away in her room along with more potable water. Grateful for having tinted windows, she also filled up the backseat with survival gear, clothing, and weapons as they were not allowed in the shelter. She left the passenger seat empty, not knowing if she would need the room for someone or even just her cats.

By the time the contagion reached the homeless shelter, she had acquired a small arsenal consisting of three handguns, two shotguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, six shiny new machetes, a set of hunting knives, two baseball bats, several assorted hand tools, and a bucket of nails. Other supplies included a small solar-powered generator with an auxiliary hand-crank, a propane stove with several canisters of fuel, six dozen gallon jugs of water, a meager mountain of canned food, three year’s supply of dehydrated foods, hundreds of bottles of over-the-counter medications, a year’s worth of her prescriptions, and several dozen bags of high-protein dry cat food – which she was willing to eat herself if it came down to it. The only thing she felt lacking was her water supply, but she was sure to have a tarp and barrel with which to catch rainwater and condensation. How she got away with hiding all of this in her room and car without the shelter staff noticing was beyond her, but she was grateful it went undetected.

She couldn’t say for certain as she had locked and barricaded herself in her room at the first sign of trouble, but she assumed the outbreak likely started in the west family bathroom. Hearing screams coming from the far side of the building, she sprung into action sliding her heavy oak desk in front of the door. She saw to it that never again would anyone living or dead walk through that entrance. Knowing the staff might make an attempt at evacuating the shelter, she reinforced the barricade by hammering several two-by-fours to the wall on either side of the door. They may have keys to get into her room, but they would need more than keys if they made any attempt to evacuate her.

No such attempt was made. Jackie assumed the staff panicked and fled. Any poor soul magnanimous enough to try assisting the afflicted was likely bitten and turned themselves. She heard the screams of women and children migrate down the halls moving closer and closer to her corner room on the northeast end as the day wore on.

By nightfall, all was quiet in the building except for the hum of the backup generator. The outbreak had taken over the city quickly and the grid had gone out by sundown. She wasn’t sure how long there would be power, so she took the opportunity to charge her laptop and play one last round of Sid Meyer’s Civilization IV before it all went dark.

“Ironic,” she thought to herself as she built her empire in the game. “I’m building a civilization from scratch as the one in which I live is scratched out of existence.”

Around midnight, the generator died and the lights went out. Bathed in the glow of her laptop, now operating on battery power, she sighed deeply and shed a single tear. Because of her reinforcements and insulating the walls with blankets, she couldn’t hear the moaning and shuffling in the hallways outside her room. Nonetheless, she knew they were there – the formerly-living residents of the Aurora Women’s Shelter. Women and children whom just days before had been blithely smoking away their lives and watching their children play. She shuddered at the thought of what she knew she must do.

Not wanting to think any further on the subject, she closed her laptop and peeled back the covers of her bed. Upon laying down, Bella took her usual place on Jackie’s shoulder and Tiger made himself comfortable at her feet. She was grateful for their warmth and listening to the sound of Bella’s purr through her pillow, she fell fast asleep.

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