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This Plague of Days Finale: Another Sneak Peek

Kelly Dickson had been a mother, wife and elementary school teacher at the Brooklyn School for the Blind. Before X, Z and A — three deadly strains of the Sutr virus — pulled the world down the path toward the new Dark Ages,  Kelly lived in New York all her life. She named her dog (a tall, affectionate boxer) Batman. She faced the darkness with a smile, confident she could find the way.

As the summer turned to autumn and Sutr’s first stirrings were still a vague, foreign problem mentioned at the bottom of newscasts, Kelly shook as she asked her husband to check the electronic test kit for her. Kelly was nervous about having a child. The sensor read: blue. 

Kelly didn’t know what blue meant. She didn’t know what the color blue looked like, either.

“It means we’re pregnant,” Brad said.

“One of us is more pregnant than you,” Kelly said. It was true the baby was an accident, but one of the happy kinds. 

“It’ll be okay. It’ll be better than okay. We’ll make it good. Maybe even great.”

“I’m scared, but I think we’ll just have to settle for perfect,” she said.

“We’re too ambitious not to try, right?”

“Yes, that’s true.” She kissed him.

Her husband, Bradley Dickson, was an engineer for Dell. Brad had been buried under high aspirations and heavy work long before the baby. As the baby grew within Kelly, the world changed behind the Dicksons. It was as if they stood with their backs to a movie screen, oblivious as the plagues built in strength. They fixated on a bright future instead. They talked of someday grandchildren. They could only see each other.

When the baby came, Kelly gave birth at home. The hospitals weren’t considered safe for childbirth by then. A neighbor woman helped Brad deliver the child, a little girl the Dicksons named Susan. After the baby was born, Brad took up any slack. He helped with the baby without a grumble, rising above Kelly’s expectations in every way.

Then the first wave of the Sutr-X virus hit New York deeper and harder. Quarantines and looting began. Brad’s abilities shone even brighter. He was strong. He knew guns. When the looters came to steal from the Dicksons, he drove the gang away with a bullet between the eyes of the first thief who made it through their barricaded door.

“Count the days,” Brad said. “On the other side of this thing, we’ll say we spent 100, or maybe 200 days, in hell. Then everything will get back to okay and someday we’ll bore our grandchildren with stories about the big, bad flu. Someday, all this will feel as remote as the trials and horrors of pioneer days. I swear.”

Brad told Kelly that he’d thrown the looter’s corpse in the street as a warning to anyone else who would threaten his family. His voice was steady and calm and so matter-of-fact, he scared her a little. Later, she heard him crying in the night as he rocked the baby.

It was the first time she’d ever heard Brad cry. When he did that, she was filled with confidence that the plague hadn’t driven him mad. Despite throwing a corpse into Nostrand Avenue, her husband was still one of the good guys. Kelly was so sure then that they’d make it through the Sutr pandemic.

Then the baby began coughing. The Sutr Flu took tiny Susan Dickson on a Thursday night as a rainstorm poured and pounded.

Brad withdrew and stayed in the nursery with the baby. He wouldn’t come out and Kelly couldn’t force herself to come in. The smell of baby powder, the softness of Susan’s flannel sheets and the small, too-quiet room set off more crying jags. Kelly stayed in her bed.

Kelly knew she could stop counting the days now. The calendar would never matter again. There would be no first steps or first day at school or someday grandchildren. With the baby dead and gone (gone where?), no matter how soft and warm the weather, every day would feel like the rainy Thursday night Susan died.

Kelly slept and hoped it was all really nightmare born of maternal fears compounded by a failing world. Her baby’s cry did not wake her. A full day had passed. When she went to the door, she could hear the rocker’s creak on the old hardwood floor. Brad still held Susan, rocking gently and muttering to the child, but the baby would never awake. 

“There are flowers called baby’s breath,” Kelly told Brad from the nursery door. “Until now, I never thought how morbid that sounds. Something that dies right after you get it shouldn’t be called baby’s breath.”

“It’s time,” he said. “We can’t keep her here any longer.”

That was all Brad said. When Susan died, it was as if the baby had taken part of Brad with her, leaving Kelly and her guide dog alone with the ghost of what might have been.

* * * 

Kelly and Brad made their way to the nearest church to bury Susan.

Even as he dug their daughter’s tiny grave, between Kelly’s sobs and moans, Brad began a gravelly cough that would not ease. With the exertion of digging, his hacking coughs came thicker and faster. “Kell…I’m sorry. I think I’m gonna have to dig a bigger hole.”

“You are leaving me alone.”

“Just…” Brad broke into another coughing fit. “I thought I could fight it, Kell. I really did. I’ve had the fever for a few days. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“You’ve been hiding it from me.”

“I’m afraid…when I went out to find food…I’m afraid I brought it back with me. Sutr got me, but I killed Susan.” He wept, then spit something out. Then Kelly listened as Brad  threw up and wretched.

“Give me the shovel,” she said. “I can dig.”

“I’ll hold her,” Brad said. “When it’s bedtime, could you please tuck us in together? I’ll keep her safe. Susan and I will hide under the covers.”

Batman whined, snuffled and nuzzled Kelly’s hand, looking for reassurance. Maybe the guide dog somehow sensed the horrors still on the way. Kelly had no reassurance to offer. She wept as she dug.

Brad coughed a long time, each breath wheezing into the next, shorter and shallower as the day cooled to night.

Heedless of nightfall, Kelly knew darkness. She kept digging, making comfortable room for two.

Brad struggled to breathe and spat thick liquid obstructions into the growing pile of dirt beside him. His fever spiked into hallucinations and Brad began to talk to his dead baby about fields bathed in sunshine. 

“Do you see that, Susie?” Brad asked, his thoughts floating in at a languid pace. “Elysium fields…white circles in the sky…bullshit harps and wings of false promises…the end of trying. Susie, I don’t wanna try no more…I’m tired, baby. I’m really…really…bone tired.”

And Brad stopped trying. His arms went slack and he almost dropped the baby. He lay down and covered Susan in loose dirt until only her cherubic face was exposed to the world.

Later, Brad stopped breathing.

Kelly was angry when she’d found what he’d done with the baby. She wept and wailed as she pushed him into the open grave.

When she was ready to say goodbye to them both, she placed the baby carefully in her husband’s arms for the last time. She picked up the shovel and tucked Brad and Susan in for their longest night.

~ The finale to the Plague of Days trilogy launches on Father’s Day. On June 15, This Plague of Days, The Complete Three Seasons by Robert Chazz Chute will also be released. The future is sweet and terrible and thought-provoking and filled with the infected (of several varieties.)


From the revision well: Chapter 2 of This Plague of Days

The moon lit the boy’s face as he peered over the fence into the next yard. Jaimie Spencer watched the couple on the lawn chair. The chair’s squeak had drawn him closer, curious. He wasn’t allowed in the neighbor’s yard, but moon shadows amid thick hedge leaves concealed him. A  woman he’d never before seen sat in the older man’s lap. The man, Mr. Sotherby, lay still beneath her. Jaimie could not see the man’s  face, but there was something grim about him, as if the couple were reluctant joggers in a cold wind. 

A cool hand slipped to the back of the boy’s neck. Without looking, Jaimie knew it was his sister, Anna. “Ears,” she whispered, “You’re being creepy again.”

The woman froze and turned her head. The couple whispered to each other, too. Sotherby’s voice was insistent. Hers was afraid. 

Anna guided her little brother away from the hedge line. Anna did not speak again until she and Jaimie stood by their own back door. “Mr. Sotherby has brought home another one of his flight attendant friends. You shouldn’t spy on them. It’s wrong.”

Jaimie did not look at Anna directly. He never met her eyes and he rarely spoke. Her brother cocked his head slightly to one side. That questioning gesture was a rare bit of Jaimie’s body language that few outside the family could read easily. Anna told Jamie that when he cocked his head that way, he looked like Fetcher, the cocker spaniel they’d once had. In every picture they owned of that pet, the spaniel’s head was tipped slightly sideways, perplexed by the camera. Jaimie thought the entire breed must cock their heads slightly sideways, hence their name. The boy abhorred instances of imprecision and illogic in language, and so he was frequently disappointed.

This Plague of Days III“Mr. Sotherby brings home his friends. Remember Mr. Sotherby’s a pilot? He gives rides to lots of people, Ears. He was just giving her a ride. That woman you saw thought she was part of a couple, but they were really just coupling.”

Couple: a noun and a verb. Jaimie had read these words in his dictionary. Overlaps of meanings and terms irritated. He wondered if his sister was trying to bother him. She often called him Ears when she was angry with him, though sometimes she called him that when she hugged him, too. More confusion and imprecision. 

“Dad says it’s a terrible thing what’s happened to flight attendants,” Anna said. “He says when they were called stewardesses, they were cuter. Now the older ones have a waxy look.”

Jaimie wondered how the change in the name of their occupation could have changed the way they looked. He’d heard there were magic words. “Flight attendant” must have powerful, and dangerous, magical properties.

Anna pulled her little brother into the house. “Let’s keep this between you and me,” Anna said and then burst out in a giggle. “Mom would worry you’re getting corrupted. I won’t say anything and I know you won’t.”

Jaimie followed Anna up the back stairs into the kitchen. She pulled out a box of cereal and poured a bowl for herself and one for her brother. He never asked to eat but was usually cooperative if a bowl and spoon was placed in front of him. 

He couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Sotherby and the woman. Jaimie liked to watch colorful patterns that flowed around people. He had seen the colors around living things all his life. He assumed everyone saw them. The boy had seen something pass between Mr. Sotherby and the flight attendant he had never before seen. It was disturbing because it muddied their colors and made them less vibrant.

Jaimie stood at the sink and gazed out of the kitchen window as he ate.  The moon hung so low and full, the tip of a distant church spire reached, its tip stretching to split Clavius, a large crater toward the base of the moon’s face. The boy’s mind wandered over the words spire and aspire. Surely, the terms shared the same arrogant word root. But the spire would always be bound to the earth, many miles short of aspiration’s heights. The gap between hope and doomed reality turned the boy’s mind back to the naked woman in the next yard.

Small black spots had hovered between the pair like greasy flies. The black smear spoiled the usual pleasing weave of colors. There had been many of them, like a cloud of feeding insects, around the woman. They spread over Mr. Sotherby, too, reaching for him. Jaimie didn’t know what the black spots were, but he sensed a yearning and purpose in their movement. They aspired to reach Mr. Sotherby and overtake him. He sensed the black cloud’s aspirations would be fulfilled. 

That was Jaimie Spencer’s first glimpse of the Sutr Virus at its deadly work. He was sixteen. He might have mentioned it to someone, but Jaimie Spencer was a selective mute. 

“A very selective mute,” his father, Theo Spencer, called him. “Jaimie has something we all lack: A super power. My son can shut up until he has something to say.”

But Jaimie’s ability to communicate well still waited on a distant time horizon then. Billions would have to expire — and one death would have to transpire — before Jaimie found his voice.  

~ This Plague of Days will be ready to launch in roughly a month. In the meantime, please check out all the links to books by Robert Chazz Chute at AllThatChazz.com.

 


This Plague of Days: Today’s taste

This Plague of Days 0328From today’s revisions:

She had been wrong to trust Chester, but the man with the long knife and the stolen Mercedes had taught her a few things:

First, there was fuel everywhere. Second, she was lucky to have a length of old garden hose in her hand to siphon gas. Third, she’d overestimated her ability to judge people. Fourth, life and death situations make English majors with unfinished masters theses in Elizabethan poetry feel awfully stupid.


This Plague of Days: The Serial. The Novel. (The Movie?)

English: This plague patient is displaying a s...

English: This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe. After the incubation period of 2-6 days, symptoms of the plague appear including severe malaise, headache, shaking chills, fever, and pain and swelling, or adenopathy, in the affected regional lymph nodes, also known as buboes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From a recent revision of This Plague of Days (my current work in progress):

It was only four blocks, but it seemed much farther in the dark. They moved slowly, following Jack’s flashlight beam.
A dozen pairs of eyes followed them in turn — wary but fierce — unseen and circling, closer and closer. The ragged creatures, drooling and impatient, ached with hunger.

Only meat could slake them now.

~ I wrote This Plague of Days a couple of years ago. I’m enjoying rediscovering it as I revise the serial for publication. I hope you’ll enjoy it, too. (Coming end of May. Prepare yourself.)


A tiny excerpt of This Plague of Days from today’s revisions

This Plague of Days 0328“The ’40s and ’50s had the mushroom cloud.

The ’60s had flower power and the rocket to the moon.

The ’70s had disco, the ’80s and ’90s had a stock ticker, and the 2000s had the World Trade Center attack.”

Oliver pointed with his chin toward the wreck of the fire engine on its side, forgotten amidst the mayhem.

“There’s the new symbol of our time. Of course, like the man said, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

~ This Plague of Days, by Robert Chazz Chute will be released at the end of May.


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