The Fort in Vermont
by David A. Simons
I'm at my lab bench in my summer bio class, studying one of Michael Decker's
arm hairs under my microscope. It's round, light brown in color, with scattered
pigment granules and a surprisingly thick cuticle sheath. The cortex is much
thinner than my father's hair -- almost transparent, which surprises me. I decide
to get another sample.
I edge toward Michael, scouring his hairy arms and hands for another loose shaft.
Michael's eyes are fixed on our professor, Dr. Lefebvre, who's giving his pre-lab
lecture, explaining how to run antibody gels without contamination. Dr. L knows
I'm not listening -- the little high school girl, playing with her microscope again.
But he also knows that I've done all the reading, that I'll ace the lab, so he lets it
I spot a curly, dark shaft on Michael's hand that appears loose, and I reach for it
slowly, grasping it between my thumb and index finger.
Dr. L abruptly stops talking, something he rarely does, and I look up.
My father is standing at the door. I pull away from Michael and straighten.
Dr. L chats with my father quietly, his back to the class. Michael turns toward me,
raises his eyebrows, and I shrug. One of the girls at the next bench giggles,
covering her mouth with her fist, her fake pearl rings hanging in front of her nose
like globs of snot. Like I'd care.
"Rachel," says Dr. L, "you're excused. Go with your father."
I pocket the slide with Michael's arm hair, wipe off my bench top, and walk to the
door. Dr. L pats my shoulder twice as I pass, then turns back to his lecture.
My father's in emergency mode: eyes narrow, lips tight, jaw thrust forward, saying
nothing. He walks quickly, navigating through the maze of laboratories as though
he's been there more times than I have. I notice he's wearing gloves, even though
it's June. When we get to the car and turn on the radio, I find out why.
The virus has reached Boston.
It's a hemorrhagic fever, like those Ebola and Marburg viruses that wipe out small
villages in Africa every now and then, only this one's airborne. It emerged from
the Congo a few months ago, raced through a few African cities I'd never heard of,
then spread to Asia, Europe, and Australia. According to the news guy on the
radio, Mass General now has its first patient in quarantine.
My father, of course, is well prepared. When we arrive home, the Odyssey is
already parked by the fountain, and boxes are lined up in the garage, ready to load.
He starts filling the van's tank with his reserve gas supply and sends me upstairs to
My two usual suitcases are sitting outside my bedroom door. I fill one with my
microscope, wrapped in jeans and a fleece, and the other with everything else. I
lug them to the van then go help Stevie.
Stevie had an hour head start, but of course, he's hardly begun to pack. He's
sitting on his bed, bouncing a tennis ball off the Frogman poster on his bedroom
wall. Our German Shepherd, Chase, sits on the floor next to him, snapping at the
ball each time it passes. Clothes, videogames, dog toys, Hostess cupcake
wrappers, and other little boy crap are scattered across the floor, piled around his
empty suitcase. When I open his door, he catches the tennis ball and pretends to
throw it at me, grinning.
"Dad's in emergency mode," I say. "Get packing." Stevie stops grinning and
throws clothes into his suitcase, still holding the tennis ball. Chase thumps his tail
expectantly. I push the dog out of the room and help Stevie pack.
An hour later, we pile into the van. My father and me in front, Stevie and Chase in
back with the suitcases and boxes.
And so, by the time the mayor comes on the radio to reassure the good citizens of
Boston that there's nothing to fear, that the virus won't spread here like it has in all
those poor countries, we're already peeling out of town, heading west on the Mass
Pike toward our fort in Vermont.
Our Vermont home is in a mostly empty region called the Northeast Kingdom, up
near the Canadian border. We've got two hundred acres, with a decent sized
house, a barn, a small pond, an apple orchard, and a bunch of solar panels, all
screened off by an electric fence.
It takes five hours to get there from Boston, so we don't arrive until after ten. I'm
ready for bed, but my father will have none of that. He marches us down to the
cellar to retrieve his disaster crates.
Our cellar used to stow wines and cheeses and, sometimes, in-laws, but now it's a
warehouse. My father's stuffed it with rows and rows of metal bookshelves, all
loaded up with these orange plastic crates, hermetically sealed, labeled by disaster
He's got crates for nuclear attack, hurricane (in New England?), tsunami, polar ice
melt, power grid failure, and of course, virus outbreak. There are also shelves and
shelves of bottled drinks and canned foods, and a locked cabinet with my father's
We pull out a dozen of the "virus" crates and haul them up the stairs, one at a time.
Stevie and I struggle with one, him walking backwards up the steps, me bearing the
weight. Chase squeezes by Stevie, nearly bowling him over.
"Can't we let Mario and Julie do this in the morning?" I ask, after the second load.
"I've sent them home," says my father. "The property is quarantined until the
virus clears." I'm too tired to appreciate what that means.
After we finish with the crates, my father sits us down at the kitchen table and
hands us each a laminated sheet of paper titled "Virus Procedures."
"New house rules," my father begins. "We follow them until the outbreak ends."
I learned long ago not to interrupt my father during one of his rule rants, so I sit
quietly, rubbing the laminated page between my fingers, wondering what it would
look like under my scope. I hold Stevie on my lap, one arm wrapped around his
chest. He's wired -- Vermont in June, no summer school, up past bedtime -- and
his butt squirms across my thighs. Only the dog escapes the lecture. He circles his
kitchen bed twice, farts loudly, and plops down for the night.
"No one goes outside the fence, and no one enters," my father says. "We eat only
canned food from the cellar -- no fish from the pond and no apples from the
"Wash your hands when you come in from the outside. Thirty seconds, under hot
water, then alcohol gel. If you touch any wildlife, leave your clothes outside and
shower on the porch."
"How long are we gonna stay here?" interrupts Stevie.
"Until the virus is gone. Maybe weeks, maybe years."
I scan the rest of the list. Mostly common sense, if you know anything about
viruses, and some of it is just plain silly. I slide Stevie off my lap and stand.
"Sit down Rachel," my father says. "I'm not finished."
"I'm going to bed," I say. "I promise I'll pass the quiz in the morning." I get
halfway to the stairwell.
"Rachel," my father calls, his voice low. I turn around.
My father is not a physically imposing guy -- he's kind of short, with thinning hair
and a bony forehead, and he wears these steel-rimmed glasses that are straight out
of the 80s. But he has this twitch that he does when he's angry. His right arm
flexes, making his bicep tendon stick out like a wire, and his fingers curl and
uncurl, almost to a fist. He did that for days after my mother's accident, and a few
times since. He's doing it now.
"Don't test me, Rachel," he says. "Not now."
Stevie stares at me, suddenly still, his mouth open.
"Fine," I mumble. I say something else under my breath, sit back down, pull
Stevie back to my lap, and let my father finish his damn lecture.
My father hasn't always been this way. He used to be a computer programmer.
Geekier than me, even. He designed security systems for large computer networks,
built up a Fortune 1000 company, made piles of money.
When I was seven, he bought me my first microscope. It was one of those toy
plastic kinds with a fixed eyepiece and disposable slides with no cover slips. I
looked at everything through it: orange juice, drops of blood, flower petals, insect
wings, and my baby brother's poop. I especially liked hairs. My hairs, my
mother's dyed hairs, hairs from my father's comb, hairs from my friends at school.
When I pulled out one of my baby brother's hairs, my mother was furious. Yelled
at me. But my father didn't. Instead, he snipped another clump from Stevie's head
and bought me a better microscope.
But after my mother's death, things changed. He became convinced that some big
disaster was going to turn the world upside-down, make all of his money useless.
So he sold his company, turned our vacation home into this fort, and became
whatever it is he's become.
After a week at the fort, we settle into a routine. In the mornings, we do chores and
maintenance. Normally, there are full time staffers -- Mario and Julie -- who
handle all the upkeep, but since my father won't let them on the compound, we do
all of it ourselves. My father takes care of the fence and the satellite dish and the
other machinery, and I do the laundry and the food prep (mostly opening cans and
heating things). Stevie's too young to be useful, so my father tells him to take care
of Chase and stay out of the way. I let him weed dandelions from the flower beds
and dump trash down by the fence.
In the afternoons, we do schoolwork. I'm keeping up with the readings from Dr.
L's class and boning up on virology. I also tutor Stevie an hour a day. He doesn't
do well in school, but he has ADD and dyslexia, so it's not really his fault. My
father's solution is to give him drugs and make him go to summer school. I just
think he needs motivation. He says he wants to be a vet, so this week, I'm teaching
him dog and squirrel anatomy.
The virus has broken through the Mass General quarantine, and there are several
dozen reported cases now, so it looks like we'll be here awhile. I send Dr. L an
email, telling him that I'll likely miss the rest of his class. I ask him when the TV
movie will be coming out (our private joke for virus panic). He writes back right
away, and his email surprises me:
I'm glad to hear you're safe in Vermont. A lot of parents have pulled their
kids from class, and I don't blame them. This virus is nothing like the Hanta
and influenza strains that hit the last two years. It's something completely
new, and much more lethal.
I spoke to my contacts at CDC, and here's what they tell me: It's a radical
mutation of Marburg. Airborne, highly contagious, irregular latency and
nearly 100% fatal. They're not even sure of the mechanism yet, except that
it causes hemorrhagic bleeding.
The governor says they have it under control, that the new, stricter
quarantines will stop it, but she's lying. This will get much worse before it
gets better. Stay in Vermont, and stay safe.
Dr. L isn't normally such an alarmist.
The next morning, Michael Decker calls. (He's the college sophomore I met in Dr.
L's class, the one with transparent arm hairs.) Two people at his father's office
have come down with the virus, and his mother's all panicked. When she found
out he knew me, and that we have this fort in Vermont, she begged him to call. So
I invite him and his parents to come stay with us at the fort.
I find my father outside, caulking the kitchen window frame, and I tell him. He
reacts like I expected.
"No. They're not coming. This is our safe place."
"I've already invited them."
"Call them back. Un-invite them."
"They're not infected, Dad," I say. "Michael's father wasn't directly exposed."
He scrapes away an ivy stem, then squirts a caulk line down the window's vertical
edge. Thick and straight. "You don't know that," he says. "They might be lying.
I'm not risking our safety for some family I don't know."
He's right, of course, about me not really knowing, but I'm not backing down. Not
"Mom would have."
His finger's clench, and a glob of caulk squirts out of the gun, dribbles down to his
hand. He curses, tosses the gun aside and turns on me.
A dog whimpers behind us, and we both turn. Chase and Stevie are standing ten
feet away, leaning against each other. Stevie's hands are covered with dirt from
digging up dandelions, and he's staring at us, eyes wide.
My father grabs my arm, smearing caulk onto my elbow, and pulls me across the
porch away from Stevie.
Eventually, he compromises. The Deckers can come, but they will have to stay in
the barn, quarantined, for the next ten days.
In the afternoon, my father sets up the quarantine. He drags three mattresses, a
crate of food, and twenty gallons of water into the barn. He paints a red circle on
the grass around the barn, a boundary, using up two cans of spray paint. He sticks
a post in the driveway, at the edge of the red circle, and tacks a laminated note onto
it. On top of the post, he leaves my mother's silver dinner bell.
When the Deckers arrive a few hours later, my father has Stevie and I locked inside
the house. I watch from my bedroom window, upstairs.
The Deckers pull their Lexus wagon up to the post and get out and stretch. Mr.
Decker finds the laminated note, reads it, then shows it to Mrs. Decker. He's
gesturing furiously, pointing at our house. Mrs. Decker rubs her hand on his
shoulder. Michael ambles over, glances at the note, shrugs, and starts carrying
suitcases to the barn.
I decide to pay them a visit.
After dinner, when my father's out patrolling the perimeter in his Land Rover, I
bring a pan of brownies to the bell post and read the note. It's quarantine rules,
and they're pretty onerous. The Deckers are supposed to stay inside the red circle
at all times. If they need something, they must call, and my father will drop it off
at the post and ring the bell. For a bathroom, they're to use the stream behind the
barn. If they violate any of these rules, the sheet says, they'll be forced to leave.
I ring the bell then dash across the red line to the barn door. When Mrs. Decker
opens it, I jump inside and pull the door shut behind me.
The "barn" is really more of a fancy tool shed. It's a single room with a cork-wood
floor, double doors in front and back, and shelving around the sides holding tools
and lawn care stuff. There are windows with screens, and power outlets with fans
attached. We've never kept animals in it, not even Chase, so it doesn't smell like
anything. All things considered, it won't be such a terrible place to spend ten days.
Mrs. Decker gasps when I jump inside, puts her hand on her chest. "You must be
"Aren't you supposed to stay away from us?"
Mrs. Decker is a round woman with thick, wavy hair coated with a type of blond
dye that sparkles under a scope.
"Yeah, well, I don't always follow my father's rules."
She winks at me, then points at the pan in my arms. "What do you have there?"
"Brownies. To welcome you."
"How sweet!" Mrs. Decker takes the pan. "See Hal," she says, "they've brought
Mr. Decker is sitting against a side wall, in front of a makeshift desk he's built
from two suitcases, his legs in a yoga pretzel. He grunts at her, but doesn't look
up. Mrs. Decker sighs and carries the brownies to the opposite wall, where she's
arranged the food crate and water bottles into a makeshift kitchen.
Michael sits with his back propped against the rear double door. His long legs
stick out in front of him, the bottoms of his bare feet pointing at me. His thick,
curly hair is uncombed and flops over his forehead. He's wearing a BU sweatshirt
and expensive jeans with holes in them.
"Hey Michael," I say.
He looks up, gives me a half wave, then looks back down. He's reading a thin
paperback entitled "Community Manifesto," or something like that. I can't fully
make it out.
I turn to Mr. Decker. He stares at a laptop propped on top of his pile of suitcases.
He's got a narrow head with a tuft of black hair on top, like Bert from Sesame
Street. He's much older than Mrs. Decker, so the hair is probably frayed and fuzzy
"Can you get wireless with that?" I ask, pointing at his laptop.
He looks up, blinking. "Supposedly, but there's no signal. Hard to believe there
are still blind spots."
"We've got WiFi through our satellite, but you need a special key to see it." I give
him the key. He types it in and buries his face in the computer.
I glance once more at Michael . . . and catch him staring at me. I smile at him and
slip back outside.
That night, just after 1:00 a.m., I awake to a thumping sound on the wall outside
my bedroom. I turn on the bed light and stick my head out the window. Michael is
standing on the ground below, tossing one of Chase's tennis ball against the
outside of the house. He's dressed in the same jeans and sweatshirt, the sleeves
rolled up over his elbows.
"Are you crazy?" I whisper-scream. "If my father sees you out here, he'll kill
Michael stands politely, one hand behind his back, the other holding the tennis
ball. "I read on CNN.com that there was a solar flare today," he says. "We might
be able to see the Northern Lights."
"I've been to Alaska and Iceland," I say. "I've seen lots of aurora."
Michael pulls his hand out from behind his back. He's holding a rectangular bottle
of some kind of alcohol. He shakes it in front of him, making the liquid slosh.
"I'll be right down." It seemed the clever thing to say.
I put my fleece jacket over my nightshirt, slip into my sandals, and turn off the bed
light. I then lower myself out the window, climbing backwards down the ivy
trestle. About halfway down, my shirt gets caught on a loose nail, yanking it up
over my waist, giving Michael a square-on view of my butt. I quickly unhook the
shirt and jump the rest of the way down.
"Full moon tonight," says Michael, and takes a swig from his bottle. I act all
embarrassed, but truth be told, I'm not.
I steer Michael to the path behind the barn, the one that leads uphill to the apple
orchard. We've had a wet spring, so the blue spikes are already in full bloom.
They line the path, nearly three feet high, looking gray and spooky in the
moonlight, like sentries. The mosquitoes are out as well, feasting on Michael's and
my exposed arms and necks. He slaps at them but doesn't complain.
Before tonight, I've only talked to Michael three times: twice during labs in Dr.
L's class, and once for half an hour while waiting for the Green Line on Comm
Ave. He knows that I'm in high school, that I met Dr. L in an honors program a
few years ago; I know that he's a sociology major, that he's the VP of a student
group that protests genetic engineering, and that he's taking Dr. L's class to bone
up on the basics. He invited me to a college party once, but I was watching Stevie
that night, so I passed.
As we climb, Michael launches into his theory of the virus outbreak. He claims
that the big pharmas were doing illegal research in Africa, and accidentally
released the virus. "They've got a vaccine ready," he says, "but they're waiting
until it spreads more before they start selling it."
It's total bullshit, of course, but he seems so eager to convince me, and I like
listening to him talk, so I just nod along.
We reach the top of the hill. I can smell the apple blossoms, but it's too dark to
make out the colors. I lead Michael to a clearing with a good view of the north
sky, and we sit with our backs against two adjacent trees.
It actually is a fullish moon, so we can make out Sable and Gore Mountains to the
north, and a few lights from the tiny town of Simms Hill -- where our caretakers,
Mario and Julie, live -- to the east. Our fence snakes around the property like a
medieval wall. There's a light breeze which flaps the bottom of my shirt and chills
my legs, but otherwise, it's comfortable for nighttime in Vermont.
Michael opens his liquor bottle.
"Have you drunk straight Schnapps before?" he asks.
"Yes," I lie.
He takes a sip and passes to me. I put the bottle to my lips and swallow a large
gulp, like chugging beer, and then cough volcanically, spraying my fist. He pats
my back but doesn't laugh.
"Go slowly," he says. "I don't want to carry you down the hill."
I take a smaller sip. It still burns, but goes down. I pass the bottle back to him.
We watch the north sky for aurora. We don't see any, probably because of the
bright moon. I point out a few constellations my father taught me (for navigation),
and we see several shooting stars.
We drink a little more, warming up, and I scoot next to Michael, sharing his tree.
He moves his hand onto my knee, gingerly, and squeezes. I put my hand on top of
his and slowly push it up my thigh, until he starts moving it on his own.
He slides his fingers under my nightshirt, over my hip bone, and slowly up my
side, until his thumb brushes against the side of my breast. Much more gracefully
than Stu and the other high school boys. When he leans over to kiss me, I jump
I wake up the next morning on top of the hill, with my head resting on Michael's
chest. My nightshirt is still on, but it's covered with dew and clinging to me. I sit
up slowly, rubbing my eyes. It's bright outside. Really bright. I look down at
He's asleep on his back, his head resting on my fleece jacket, mouth open, snoring
slightly. His hair is flopped across his forehead, making a triangle over his eyes,
and he needs a shave.
I pull back the neck line on his sweatshirt and study his chest. There are a few
hairs growing there, light-colored and thin and straight. I carefully grasp one
between my thumb and index finger and pull it free with a quick pluck. Michael's
eyes pop open. I palm the hair and let go of his sweatshirt.
"Wake up!" I say. "It's already morning. We have to sneak back down."
Michael sits up slowly, rubbing his eyes against the brightness. Then he sees
something over my shoulder and freezes.
I turn around. Behind us, not ten meters away, is my father. He's standing still
and straight, as if he's been there for hours, his hair neatly combed and parted. The
barrel of his shotgun rests against his shoulder.
His right hand is in full twitch, the bicep tendon popping in and out, his fingers
curling around the gun barrel.
Michael straightens, glances quickly at the empty Schnapps bottle lying next to
him, and looks up at my father. I can feel the pulse racing through Michael's arm.
"Nothing happened, Dad," I say. (Which is true, I think.) "We just came up here
to watch the aurora."
"Michael was under quarantine," says my father. "And now you are, too. You
will stay in the barn with the Deckers for the next nine days."
Just the punishment I'd hoped for. I point at the damp nightshirt, clinging to my
chest. "Can I at least get clothes?"
"I'll bring your clothes to the bell post." He turns and heads back down the hill.
"There's nothing to worry about, Mr. Gamut," Michael calls after him. "None of
us are inf --"
My father swings around, now holding the shotgun with two hands, pointing it
over Michael's head. He glares at Michael with that cold, feral stare that used to
melt his business rivals. Michael closes his mouth and looks down at his knees.
My father starts to say something, stops, then turns and walks quickly down the
Once the tip of my father's shotgun drops out of sight, I feel the throbbing in
Michael's arm begin to slow.
"Your dad is quite the hard ass," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "Rambo nerd."
I've spent the last nine days in the barn with the Deckers.
At first, I thought it would be fun to stay with Michael and his parents, but I was
wrong. The barn is small and cramped, and it's embarrassing to pee out by the
stream five times a day. Mrs. Decker is doting and insufferable, and Mr. Decker
just sits next to his desk all the time, pleading for silence, complaining about his
colleagues abandoning work.
A few times, I've tried to convince Michael to sneak back up to the orchard, but
he's only willing to meet me out by the bathroom, which is gross. The whole area
smells like an outhouse -- you can see Mr. Decker's turds at the edge of the
stream, sticking out of the water.
So we just sit around the barn. Michael reads his books and emails his socialist
friends, tracking the virus's progress in Africa and Indonesia. I read biology texts
and study Michael's hairs under my scope.
I also miss Stevie. He poked his head through the barn door once, and I shooed
him away. Another time, he threw a tennis ball inside, sent Chase in after it, and
then slammed the door, giggling like only hyper eight-year-olds can giggle. Chase
ran wild, knocking over Mr. Decker's desk and swiping the remains of the
brownies before Michael and I shoved him out the back door.
Yesterday, I exchanged emails with my high school friends, Stu and Chelsea. Stu
says things are worse in Boston. Thousands of people infected now. They've
closed the country club and converted Mass General into a mandatory quarantine
center. His parents want to flee west, but they don't have anywhere to go. I tell
him not to worry -- the virus will run its course before it ever reaches the western
Today, finally, my father has lifted the quarantine, and we're all moving back into
the house. Michael and I have made plans to go up to the orchard in the evening,
after I've spent some time with Stevie.
It's gotten crowded in our house, now that the Deckers have moved in. Mr. and
Mrs. Decker are using the guest bedroom and the library, and Michael has moved
into Stevie's room.
Michael has also joined my schoolwork sessions with Stevie in the mornings. He's
trying to "supplement" Stevie's education by lecturing him on history and his
personal theories of the state of the world.
None of Michael's rants are really getting through to Stevie -- he tries to listen,
but mostly he just wants to look at the pictures of frog guts and dog anatomy I give
him and tramp through the woods with Chase, looking for dead squirrels. Still
though, Michael's rants are cutting into Stevie's limited focus time, which pisses
We've been at the fort for almost a month now, which is longer than any previous
"emergency" stay. I'm ready to go home. I ping Dr. L for an internet chat, to ask
him how much longer he thinks the outbreak will last. He says that we're just on
"the first plateau of a stepped exponential function." When I ask him what that
means, he tells me where to look it up, and then says he has to go. Turns out some
of his colleagues think the "universal antibody" models he worked on in grad
school might be useful against the virus, so he's running gels in his lab. It
wouldn't surprise me if Dr. L is the one who cures this thing.
Bottom line, though, is we'll be stuck here in Vermont for at least the summer.
Our dog Chase disappeared yesterday. He sometimes runs off on his own when
he's out with Stevie, but he always returns by dinner time. Yesterday, though, he
My father and I fear he might have electrocuted himself on the fence, so we drive
around the perimeter in the Land Rover looking for him. We don't find Chase, but
we do find something else. A body.
The man is lying on the far side of the east fence, next to a pile of bricks and an old
pickup truck. It looks like he tried to stand on the bricks and climb over the fence,
but electrocuted himself and fell backwards.
I've seen dead bodies before. I took a summer Honors course at BU after my
freshman year, which is where I first met Dr. L. He took us to a med students' lab
and let us watch them dissect a cadaver. A few of the kids ran out, and one guy
barfed, but it didn't bother me. The body was pink and bloated and smooth, with
rubbery skin that didn't bleed, and it smelled like formaldehyde.
But the man lying outside our fence now looks nothing a cadaver. He's wrinkled
and twisted, curled up on a bed of roots and pine needles, with biting flies circling
him. His face and ears are caked with black blood, and his mouth hangs open, as
though caught in mid sentence. He smells much worse than formaldehyde.
"Is that Mario?" I ask. "That's his truck, isn't it?"
My father doesn't answer. He powers up the windows and speeds away from the
fence, his mouth in a line. When we reach the house, he showers on the porch and
orders me to do the same.
At dinner that night, my father announces that we must all stay away from the
eastern boundary of the property.
He begins doing more frequent patrols of the perimeter, alone, in his jeep, with his
A week after finding the body, Michael, Stevie, and I are sitting out on the porch,
sharing a six pack of Coke we stole from the "off limits reserves" section of the
cellar. Stevie is still moping about Chase's disappearance, so I'm sitting next to
him on the porch, showing him pictures of frog guts I took through my
microscope. Michael sits on a chair behind us, reading a book on germ warfare.
He's now decided that the virus outbreak is a military experiment gone awry, and
that the army has vaccines in storage, but it's afraid to expose the mistake. I let
him ramble on, but when he starts distracting Stevie, I've had enough.
"It's not germ warfare," I snap. "It's a mutation of Marburg. If you'd study
biology instead of socialism, you'd know that the military wouldn't use
retroviruses because they infect too slowly and mutate too quickly."
I brace for Michael to get upset with me and start a real fight, but he doesn't.
Instead, he closes his book, sits quietly for a minute, and then says, "You know,
Rach, you're a lot more sophisticated than you let on."
I'm not sure what to make of that, so I say nothing and let him think I'm still
pissed. (And I suppose I am.) He leans forward and watches me explain the frog
pictures to Stevie.
A few minutes later, Michael puts his hand tentatively on my shoulder and asks,
"So why do you like microscopes so much?"
It's a question I've been waiting for, I guess. "Why? I'll show you."
I dash up the stairs to my room, leaving Stevie and Michael staring after me, and
grab my battery scope, an eyedropper, a slide, and a cover slip. I clamber back
down, cradling the scope, and bang through the screen door with my forearm.
Michael jumps up and follows, and Stevie runs behind.
I lead them around the house to the stream, then follow it downhill to the pond
where my father gives me shooting lessons.
The pond is about fifty meters across, surrounded by marshy grass at its mouth and
spruce forest to the south. A carpet of algae coats the rim, leaving a kidney bean of
exposed water in the middle. When we arrive, it's already late afternoon, and the
sun's reflection is spread over the water, annoying the family of ducks in the
I place my scope on the dry grass away from the pond, then take off my sneakers
and my jeans. Stevie giggles.
"Scram," I say, pointing at the forest. He gives me a betrayed, puppy-eyed look,
then wanders off into the trees. "And stay away from the fence!" I call after him.
Once Stevie is gone, I wade into the pond until the water is up to my thighs. I fill
the eyedropper with murky liquid then trudge back to the shore, to my scope.
I place a single drop onto the slide, cover it, and clip it to the stage. I focus and
push the scope over to Michael. He peels his eyes away from my panties and looks
through the eyepiece. "What do you see?" I ask.
"Lots of squiggly things swimming around."
"The long green strands are algae, and the squiggly things are two types of
protozoa, a water bear, and I think some bacteria. You could spend your entire life
studying that single drop of pond water. Do you understand now?"
Michael sits up, looks out over the pond, then back at me. "If you did that, Rach,
you'd never see that mother duck teach her children how to swim, or see the sun's
reflection on the water."
I snort so hard I almost spew snot out of my nose. "So profound, college boy," I
say, and we start making out.
A few minutes later, I hear Stevie screaming my name.
I push Michael away and run into the woods, barefoot, toward Stevie's screams.
Michael follows behind.
Stevie has found Chase.
He's holding the dog's front paws, trying to drag him across the ground. "He's
hurt, Rachel! Help him!"
The dog is more than hurt. His eyes are open and fixed, and his shriveled tongue
hangs over his lower teeth like wet cardboard. Dried blood cakes his mouth, nose,
ears, and anus, and has flaked onto Stevie's hands. Biting flies are everywhere,
buzzing around the dead dog and Stevie, finding their way to my exposed legs and
We spend very little time in Vermont in the winter, even though our fort is not far
from ski country. The property gets too cold. There's an icy wind that blows in
from Canada, over Sable Mountain, even before the snow arrives. Standing here,
seeing my brother holding his dog's paws, I feel like that wind has reached through
our fence, clawed my chest, and squeezed. For a moment, I'm frozen.
I hear Michael stammer behind me. "Rachel . . . Is the dog . . . is that . . .?"
I snap alive. "Stevie, let go of Chase's paws."
"Drop him now!" Stevie abruptly lets go. "Now walk towards me, slowly, and do
not touch your face."
And of course, the first thing Stevie does is touch his face.
I run over to him, grab his wrist, and pull him behind me. Michael follows,
keeping his distance.
We run back to the house, me half dragging, half carrying Stevie into the porch
shower. I strip both of us and scrub him under scalding water, the dog's dried
blood liquefying and turning crimson as it circles the drain. The steam burns my
eyes and turns our skin pink. Stevie whimpers, but he's too scared to protest.
Once we've finished and dressed, I take Stevie to his room and tell my father
everything that happened. He listens quietly, never interrupting or rebuking me.
When I finish, he nods once and walks over to the virus crates, the ones we
dragged up from the cellar on our first night in Vermont.
Later, I see him unpacking gloves and shower bleach and unrolling his biohazard
Stevie has a light fever, but I don't think it's the virus. It's only been two days
since the incident with the dog, and he doesn't have any other symptoms. Also, I
touched Chase's blood at least as much as Stevie did, and I feel fine. I doubt it can
be passed from dogs to humans, assuming that's what actually killed Chase.
Nevertheless, my father has quarantined Stevie in his bedroom.
I try to email Dr. L to confirm my analysis, but my email bounces back. I try Stu,
with the same result. Our dish is fine, so there must be something wrong with the
Boston servers. I search the internet for info, but most of the news websites are
shut down, or showing two-day old pages.
I finally find some updated blogs. They claim the virus is now running rampant in
major U.S. cities, especially Boston. Rumors of mutations, faster transmission.
Power is out almost everywhere. Basic services like trash collection and public
transport are breaking down because people aren't going to work.
Mass General claims to have cured several people, but the bloggers don't buy it.
Some say it's a lie, that these people were never infected in the first place. Others
say it was rich people who could buy special treatment not available to the
proletariat. I'm not sure what to believe. I wish I could reach Dr. L.
The Deckers have moved back into the barn. I try to talk to Michael, but he won't
come out. He won't even come to the door.
I think Stevie is getting worse. My father won't let me near his bedroom, but he
goes in and out three times a day, dressed in his biohazard suit. This afternoon, I
see him carrying a sealed plastic bag with gauze in it, and the gauze is bloody.
While my father is taking a bleach shower, I dig the plastic bag out from the trash
and extract a drop of Stevie's blood. I stare at it under the scope. There are too
many white cells, and the erythrocytes are bloated, some ruptured. I extract a drop
of my own blood for comparison. I have extra white cells, too, but everything else
The Deckers have left. They took a bunch of supplies from our cellar and drove
away in their Lexus in the middle of the night.
I delete the pictures of Michael's chest hair from my hard drive.
I see my father leaving Stevie's room, carrying even more bloody gauze, and I
confront him in the hallway.
"I think Stevie has the virus," I say. "He needs help."
I can hear my father breathing slowly through the biohazard mask. He turns
toward me. His face is sweaty under the mask, and his shoulders are slumped, but
his mouth is still set in that line, his jaw still thrust forward. "Be smart, Rachel,"
he says. "I need you now." He takes the bloody gauze down the stairs.
I stare at Stevie's closed door. I find myself thinking about all those stupid
pictures of hairs on my hard drive. My father's grays, with the thinning cuticles,
my mother's dyed blonds, Michael's pointy transparents. Stu's. Dr. L's. And
I open the door.
Stevie is lying on his bed, propped up by pillows. He's pale and sweaty, his thick
brown hair pasted to his forehead. There's a spot of blood under his nose. He
smiles and says my name. The room smells like day-old vomit.
I grab a pair of gloves from the dresser, put them on, and pick up Stevie, hoisting
his head above my shoulder. He wraps his arms around my back and squeezes. I
leave the bedroom door open behind me.
My father is standing at the bottom of the stairs. The gauze bag is gone, and his
suit drips with bleach water. His filter mask is raised over his head. When he sees
us, he freezes.
"Take him back, Rachel," he says, his voice still low and even.
"He needs a hospital. He needs Mass General." I take a few tentative steps down
the stairs, then stop.
My father's right arm is in full twitch, the rubbery gloves of his suit making
squeaking noises as his fingers curl into a fist.
And then I realize. His arm doesn't twitch, it shakes. He's shaking like an old
I adjust Stevie's bulk on my shoulder and walk down the stairs, straight toward
My father's eyes dart from me to Stevie then back to me. He scrambles out of the
way, raising his mask back over his face.
I grab the Land Rover keys from the door ring and walk across the porch. My
father follows behind, but at a distance.
"No one in Boston can help him, Rachel. Don't be a fool! Take him back and go
shower!" He's shouting now.
I put Stevie in the passenger seat and circle around to the driver's door.
"I'm trying to protect you, Rachel! That's all I've ever done! Don't you see?"
"You can't," I say. "You never could." I get into the car, close the door.
My father calls my name once more, his voice quiet again. He's leaning against
the porch screen now, his eyes still, his mouth set in the familiar line. I turn the
key and roll down the window.
"The nine millimeter is in the glove compartment," he says. "Do you remember
how to use it?"
I nod. "I'll bring him back," I say. "I promise."
Before my father can speak again, I power up the window and back down the
We pass only a dozen cars on the way to Boston. Mostly minivans and SUVs,
stuffed with families, possessions, heading north or west. The tollbooths are
deserted. Stevie sits quietly next to me, sometimes asking where we're going,
squeezing my hand during coughing fits.
I take the Cambridge exit and cross the Charles. The River Street Bridge, normally
a morass of merging, honking Boston drivers, is empty, and the traffic lights are
As I head down Memorial Drive, past the red brick Harvard and MIT dorms,
Stevie coughs once and starts gushing blood from his nose. I pull over and
squeeze his nose shut with the bottom of my shirt, rubbing his shoulder, telling him
to breathe. Outside, I see students staring at us, framed in their dorm windows like
aristocrats in British oil paintings. Some wear surgical masks. None come down
When Stevie's bleeding stops, I drive the last two miles to Mass General, running
the dead lights, and pull up to the ER.
Based on all the blogs, I expect the hospital to look like a refugee camp, with sick
people lined up outside, shouting for help, doctors and nurses racing around with
clipboards. But I see no one. One ambulance is parked on the sidewalk, its rear
door flung open, but nothing inside. Two more are parked in the waiting zone,
their windows broken. I can see a few lights on in the hospital's upper floors, but
otherwise, the building is dark.
I park at the end of the ER lane, directly in front of the entrance, and tell Stevie to
wait for me in the jeep while I go find doctors. He nods, still squeezing his nose,
and watches me go.
I've been to Mass General once before, to see my mother the day the Storrow
Tunnel caved. It's got a wide lobby with hallways branching off to the hospital's
wings, and an imposing metal reception desk that blocks access to the treatment
rooms beyond. That day, it was a beehive.
Today, it's empty. The reception desk is silent, abandoned. The floor is strewn
with piles bloody gauze, crumpled paper, broken glass. And the doorways to the
treatment wings are thrown wide, revealing dark, empty corridors beyond.
"Hello?" I call. The walls swallow the sound.
According to the blogs, Mass General was treating virus patients two days ago.
Where are they?
I race through the lobby, jumping over trash, and down the dark corridor, until I
reach a closed, latched double door. I push through.
Inside are bodies. They line the white hallway, propped up against both walls,
sitting in pools of dried blood and vomit. A few are covered with sheets, but most
sit exposed, packed tightly against each other so they don't fall. Their mouths are
open and their eyes are wide. They stare at me, screaming.
The smell hits and I drop to my knees and puke. I sit there, my eyes closed, one
hand braced against the floor. I want to turn back, drive Stevie back to Vermont,
carry him to his room, but I can't. I stifle the nausea and continue on, past the wall
of bodies, deeper inside.
I burst into offices, exam rooms, searching for someone alive, anyone. In a supply
room, I find two nurses and a doctor sprawled awkwardly on the floor. They have
gunshot wounds in their chests. The supply cabinets are open and raided.
I grab a fresh scrub and surgical mask from an unopened closet and run back
through the lobby, out the entrance, and to the car.
Stevie looks up at me when I return. "No doctors?" he asks.
"No, they've all gone home."
"Can we go home?"
"We'll try Longwood," I say. "Maybe Beth Israel or Children's is open."
They aren't. Beth Israel is dark, the lobby glass shattered. Children's looks open,
but there's a hand-written sign in front that says "no virus patients," and two guys
with shotguns guard the entrance. Twenty meters from the guards, a man and a
young girl lie entwined on the ground.
I reach for the nine millimeter in the glove compartment, thinking about forcing
my way in, when I see Stevie staring at the dead girl. I close the glove box and
I can think of only one other place to go, one other person to turn to.
I wind my way through Brookline, up Comm Ave, to the BU life science labs. A
dozen cars are parked by the side entrance, arranged in tight, concentric circles.
Making them harder to steal, I suppose. I see Dr. L's in the middle, giving me
I pull up next to the circle and change into the fresh hospital scrub and mask,
leaving my bloody shirt and gloves in the car. I tell Stevie to wait for me.
"Why? Where are you going?"
"To find Dr. L." He rests his head back against the seat and closes his eyes.
There's a barricade blocking the bio corridor. A jumbled pile of desks and file
cabinets, stacked halfway to the ceiling, leaving an aisle through the middle. Two
large fans point outward; both are on. I hear clinking glassware and the whir of a
generator from the lab beyond.
"Hello?" I call.
A man pulls aside one of the fans and steps through the barricade. He's filthy.
Scruffy and unshaven, with oily brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. His eyes
are red and his face gaunt, making his nose look thin and long.
It's Dr. Lefebvre.
He points an old pistol at me, holding it with two hands as if it were cold and
"You can't come in here!" he barks. "Go back outside."
I take a few steps toward him and he raises the gun, pointing it vaguely over my
shoulder. His hands shake. "Lady, please. I can't let you in. I don't want to hurt
I remember that I'm wearing a surgical mask. I slide it down below my chin.
Dr. L lowers the gun slowly. "Rachel? Is that you?"
I nod. He drops the gun onto the barricade and rushes toward me, stopping
abruptly a few feet away. "Are you sick?"
I shake my head.
He pulls a square flashlight out of his pocket. I recognize it as the UV lamp we use
to look at gels. "Close your eyes," he says.
I feel warmth as he sweeps the black light over my face and neck. "The first sign
of infection is a sub-dermal rash. It shows up in UV hours after exposure." He
pauses, finishing his sweep. "You're clean."
I open my eyes and he kisses me on both cheeks, French style. He's never done
"Come inside," he says. "I'll introduce you."
Dr. L leads me through the barricade and into his lab. I barely recognize it. The
student desks have been removed, replaced with extra lab benches. A gene
sequencer sits on top of the lecture desk, and several other machines I don't
recognize line the rear wall. Everything is plugged into a gasoline generator
whirring in the back of the room, its exhaust hose sticking out an open window.
Five adults are scattered around the room. A fat middle-aged guy and a Chinese
woman stand in front of the gene sequencer, their goggles pushed over their
foreheads; two young women in jeans -- probably grad students -- are at
Michael's lab bench, running gels; and a thin, white-haired man sits in the back,
staring at a computer screen. The grad students glance up from their gels when we
enter, but say nothing.
"These are some colleagues from around town," whispers Dr. L. "The older man
in back was my thesis advisor."
"The Nobel guy? From MIT?"
Dr. L nods. "They moved here last week, after the mobs raided the hospitals and
med schools. We figure no one will search for medicines in an undergrad bio lab."
Medicines! I grab his elbow. "Have you done it? Have you got the cure?"
The fat guy by the gene sequencer snorts. Dr. L shakes his head. "No, Rachel.
Our antibody isn't binding. It shows promise, but we're still a long way from any
kind of treatment."
I slump against doorframe and turn my face away from Dr. L. I feel sobs coming
and bite down on my lower lip. My arm wants to shake but I won't let it.
Dr. L squeezes my shoulder, turns my face back toward him. His voice is suddenly
guarded, suspicious. "Rachel, what are you doing here? Why aren't you in
"My brother's sick. I brought him back to Boston looking for help but MGH was
closed and there were people with guns at Children's. I thought maybe you'd
found a cure."
"Where's your brother, Rachel?"
"Outside in the car. He's bleeding badly."
Dr. L flinches, but he keeps his hand on my shoulder. Behind him, one of the grad
students gasps and steps away.
"Listen to me, Rachel," he says. "You can't go back to your brother. I know how
hard this is, but you can't go back. You can't help him, and you'll only infect
yourself." He pauses, taking his hand off my shoulder. "If you haven't already."
"I won't infect myself," I say. "I'm immune."
With that, all activity in the room stops. Twelve eyes bore into me. The generator
whirs through the silence.
"Say that again?" It's the old man in the corner, Dr. L's advisor.
"I'm immune," I say. I haven't thought it through until just now, but it makes
sense. The white cells. "I was exposed to an infected dog the same time as my
brother, I've been bitten by flies and mosquitoes carrying infected blood, and I've
been with my brother all day, plugging his nose. My white cells are elevated, but
Dr. L's lamp says I'm clean. So I must be immune."
The old man stands up from his computer, reaches for his cane, marches toward
me. He has a narrow, unfriendly face with sunken eyes and a peeling red nose.
His voice is like gravel.
"Does she lie, Henri?"
"No," says Dr. L.
"Are you lying?" he says to me.
I shake my head.
"You're not immune," he says, "but you're resistant. We've heard about cases like
yours. People at Mass General avoiding infection, or fighting it off before it
becomes systemic. But we haven't seen one yet. Sit down, I'm going to draw your
The old man points at the Chinese woman, and she rushes over with a phlebotomy
"Will my blood help Stevie?" I ask. "Do I have antibodies?"
The old man ignores me, opens up the kit, connects the syringe to the bag.
"Will the blood help my brother?" I ask again, shouting now.
Dr. L puts his hand back on my shoulder. "Rachel . . ."
"Sure, it might," says the old man. "Now sit!"
I sit on a lab stool and the old man stabs my arm. It takes him three pokes to find a
vein. He fills two half-pint bags before Dr. L makes him stop. I haven't eaten
since morning, and I start feeling dizzy.
"If I bring Stevie here, will you transfuse one of those bags into him?" I ask.
"The blood won't help your brother," says the old man. "He's already systemic.
And we have to figure out how to extract the antibodies anyway. But it might help
A wave of dizziness sweeps over me and I brace myself against the lab bench. The
old man ignores me, continues.
"You have to stay here, so we can study your immune system. The women sleep
in the third lab down the hall, the one that says Professor Cauley over the door."
I grab one of the half-pints and the dirty phlebotomy kit and run out the door. I
hear Dr. L call after me, but I keep running, through the barricade, down the
squeaking hallways, and back out to the parking lot and the Land Rover.
Stevie isn't there.
The passenger door is open, and there's a trail of blood drops leading away from
the car. I follow it around the building and find Stevie sitting against a tree in a
green space behind the labs, looking out over the Charles River.
He's holding my bloody shirt in his hands. The bleeding has stopped, and his eyes
are open and calm. I sit down next to him.
"I've got something that might help you," I say, holding up the pint.
"I don't need it," says Stevie. "I'm feeling much better." He crumples the shirt
into a ball, sets it next to him, and rests his head on my shoulder. He closes his
eyes, his breathing calm and steady. I lean back against the tree.
I must have fallen asleep, or passed out from the blood loss. When I wake up, the
sun is low in the sky, its reflection spread over the river, dancing on the ripples,
and Stevie is dead.
I sit there next to him until the sun sets. Then I carry him to the jeep and start
driving back to Vermont, stopping for the night somewhere along I-91. I sleep in
the back of the jeep, curled up next to Stevie.
I arrive at my father's fort at eleven the next morning and see immediately that
something is wrong. The gate is busted open, and the electric fence is off. My
father never turns off the fence.
I crawl up the gravel driveway, then jerk to a stop at the top of the hill.
The house has been ransacked. The porch door is off its hinges, windows are
smashed, and dozens of my father's orange crates are spread across the front lawn,
their contents dumped and scavenged. The solar panels face the ground, peppered
with shotgun blasts.
There's a red arrow spray painted on the ground, pointing toward the post in front
of the barn. A note sits on top, underneath my mother's dinner bell.
The note's laminated, of course.
In the unlikely event you survive your impulsive trip to Boston, I am leaving
you this note.
The looters arrived a few hours after you left. There were four of them, and
they were all armed. I could not defend the house alone.
They did not take all of our supplies. I've left plenty of fuel and food for
you -- you'll know where to find it.
I am taking the minivan to Canada. I will wait for you for two weeks near
the town of St. Malo, in the place we camped three summers ago, before I
head farther North. I hope you will come.
I bury Stevie in the woods behind the barn, using Chase's leash and collar as the
grave marker. I keep a few strands of his hair.
I spend the rest of the day sitting in the apple orchard, staring out over Sable
Mountain and the broken fence, deciding what to do next.
I've packed the Land Rover with food, gasoline, clothes, bug repellant, and extra
ammo for the nine millimeter. I take the rest of my father's hidden supplies and
drop them at the foot of the driveway, outside the fence, in case Julie or someone
from the town comes looking for food. My father wouldn't approve, of course.
Before leaving, I take my microscope to the pond. I place it on the grass, at the
point where the pond brush meets the forest's edge, where I showed Michael
protozoa while Stevie wandered the woods, looking for Chase. Sitting there in the
tall grass, next to my abandoned jeans and sandals, the scope looks like some kind
of modern still-life painting. I wonder who will find it, and what they'll think it
I walk back to the house and the waiting jeep quickly, before I change my mind.
I'm going back to BU, to Dr. L's lab, to let the old man study my immune system.
Someday, I may follow my father to the wilderness of Canada, but not yet.
I start the jeep and accelerate down the driveway, spraying gravel behind me. It's a
long drive back to Boston, and I want to get there before the sun's rays have spread
over the river.