“Sally, I need you hold still honey…..”. It was Maria Lopez’s first day as a registered nurse. When the collapse came, Maria had heard the stories on the internet but never took them seriously and who would? Maria’s next patient, Sally was sick and Maria knew, just as Sally did – Sally was going to die. No amount of training and education prepared her for the moment an unsaid stare said more than “I’m sorry….”.
“Sally, when did the cough start?” Maria asked of course, knowing Sally’s sputtering answers didn’t really matter. Maria turned behind herself, picking the cold hypodermic needle staring at notice on the canvas wall in her peripheral vision “Know the signs of Aluminum poisoning!!”. Maria had seen that notice on the internet more than a few times. She thought they were all out of their minds.
The most Maria had on day that should have been 89 degrees now 109 degrees Fahrenheit intensifying the smell of blood and vomit in the muggy field tent. She struggled to breathe just as Sally did, who now, dead was taken away by two orderlies who in their civilian lives were waiters. When the news broke, everyone’s job, those who were left became the stewards of the walking walking dead. Maria wiped a warm tear from her face as her next patient, an elderly woman who’s white, torn slip was covered in her own, dried brown blood.
Sally took a deep breath, fighting back tears “What is your name, dear?” Maria asked with a cracking, exhausted breath laden with sadness. “Prudence May..” Prudence coughed and began to convulse, covering Maria with blood. “Orderly!!!” Maria screamed. Maria, with all her might had to fight the 70 year old’s convulsions as Matt rushed into field tent, tripping over torn and bloody clothing – Maria tried her best to spit Prudence’s blood on dry warm earth that used to be grass.
“Jesus Christ, Maria…” Matt exclaimed as he too, was in shock by the old woman’s strength. Maria was afraid with all three of their bodies on the creaking makeshift field bed it may break. Of course, most of the nurses left didn’t have access to hospitals. They were destroyed in the riots – looted and stripped bare. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hospital bed??” Matt almost sounded to Maria as if he were joking. Perhaps all that Matt could do was laugh away the end of humanity – what else could you do??
“What would be nice would be a fucking glass of cold water….” Maria’s tears new filled her tired eyes as she felt the now unconscious woman’s final convulsions jolting Maria’s body. Many times, Maria asked herself why be a nurse when no one can be saved. Compassion. Yes, compassion. Compassion her rapist didn’t have when he was raping her during the food riots. What Maria never knew about her crazed attacker – that he himself was no longer receiving his Lithium pills. Those, too were looted for their barter power during the collapse. No hospital, drug store or dispensary was spared.
Maria knew the as the bodies were piled behind her stuffy tent, that soon, hers would be added to it. Prudence’s final act was to place clammy, sweating hand on Maria’s. “Goodbye, Prudence..” Matt whispered. Maria could stand no more. She jumped to her feet and promptly to her knees, still holding the cooling hand of Prudence D Mayweather. “Where the fuck are you……”, Maria squeezed her crucifix so tightly her hand shook. Gasping through tears and not able to escape the gore of others gagging and vomiting in other tents she asked her God: “Where in the fuck are you now….”
Matt, fighting back even more tears picked up Prudence’s body. Maria let go of Prudence’s hand. With Prudence’s lifeless body hanging from Matt’s large but gaunt frame like a sack of peat moss he quietly said “I will burn her body myself, Maria”. As Matt walked away and Maria knew that she would never forget Prudence’s hand even as it bounced lifelessly off a table. Maybe someone would hold Maria’s hand.
Maria’s tears splashed on yet another tattered flyer below her skinny, bruised knees “Know the signs of Aluminum toxicity…”. Maria’s tears muttled her vision as she stared at the plane graphic cruely spraying and scarring the sky. Maria suddenly noticed that she talking out loud “These ash clouds can kill!”. In the distance, a woman and a son cried the shrieks of misery that have become nothing more than a ringtone.
Maria stood up, carrying her flyer. The temperature was soaring. No more contrails. “HAARP, man, HAARP”. Maria turned her head to a person lying on a fieldcrafted stretcher. This man was gaunt and reeked of marijuana. “That’s why it’s so hot – It’s HAARP – They punched holes in the ozone – that’s radiation you’re feeling”. Maria could have sworn she saw a tired, crooked smile on the man’s dirty, emaciated face. The relentless sun made it hard for Maria to focus on him. “Some maniac rambling about nonsense while he starves to death – shake it off Maria, this is life.” Maria muttered to herself.
With her hand on her forehead she squinted and asked the man “What is your name?” “Doesn’t matter, does it?” The man holding his empty stomach pointed towards bodies strewn around him “Do their names matter now?” Maria, who was drawn to this person sat next to him, locking her eyes with his. Maria instantly saw the scratched and worn wedding ring on his bony finger and asked “Your wife, where is she??”. “Last I heard she was picked up during the food riots by government forces- that’s all I know,” Max confided quietly. Maria nodded her head and noted this man wasn’t crying – didn’t appear sad which for Maria, made no sense.
The dying man showed Maria is cracked cellular phone holding it up, with the beating sun shining off it’s face: “This fucking thing is useless – it hasn’t worked it months…Technology right!?!?!”. “My name is Max” the man said throwing the phone into the dirt. Maria instantly started to reach for the discarded phone. “Don’t, I already stripped the battery and traded it, the thing is worthless.” Max said quietly. Maria retracted her hand, reluctantly.
Max coughed as orderlies ran past him and Maria kicking up dust to another disaster somewhere in the field hospital. Maria jumped as Max took the crucifix from her hand. “Perhaps your God is enjoying this..” Max laughed between pained coughs. “What the fuck are you talking about Max?”. Maria’s enraged eyes locked again with his. “The flood, you’re part of it and unfortunately we humans aren’t on the Ark.” Max said, smiling again. To Maria, the painfully simple logic made even more painful sense. “I don’t believe God want’s us to suffer, Max”. “Here we are suffering” Max smartly replied, even after a week without food.
“God didn’t spray us like insects, Max – Human’s did”. Maria wasn’t going to let Max take away her God. “Touche’ chick, touche’”. Max leaned back and covertly looked left and right as if to suggest anyone was actually paying attention to him.
Max opened his torn cargo pant’s lower pouch and exposed a single pack of cigarettes, wide smile on his face. “They said these would kill us” Max said, mocking a politician. “Max, you shouldn’t be smoking with aluminum….” Maria couldn’t complete the sentence – Max held up his skinny hand “Or what, they are gonna kill us??” Max exploded with a pained laugh. “Interested”? Max asked with a devilish smile pushing the pathetic cigarette in hands towards her.
“I have been saving them for my, well you know my last day.” Max said. Maria knew that Max knew THIS was his final day. Maria never smoked a day in her life. “Ok Max, I will have one too”. Maria smiled as Max handed her a bent up cigarette. “What should we smoke to??” Max asked with a pontifical scowl lighting his dirt stained face..
Maria stared at a pile of dead bodies at the foot of a dead tree, killed by UVC radiation. “The names” Maria answered in a flat, emotionless tone. Max, which a satisfied nod exclaimed with a fist in the air “The names!”. Maria didn’t even notice Max holding the lit match and still not moving, staring ahead, she quietly whispered “The names….”
A warm wind was kicking up dust storms that swirled in between Max and Maria. Max’s cigarette smoke reminded Maria of her own brother – that smell that was so awful was now a touching and heartbreaking sediment of humanity. Max coughed and Maria could see the small ropes of saliva and blood hitting the parched earth. Maria stared at Max and realized his sense of freedom. It appeared to Maria as if Max was reveling in his final human experience. The irony of it all. Maria almost sensed joy in Max’s energy.
Maria was staring at a vomiting patient clutching the ground without reflection or emotion. Just an exhausted, hungry inhumane stare Maria never thought she would experience. Max coughed again, holding his hyperventilating chest he said “We never looked up.” – Max was beginning the descent that Maria had been witnessing all day long. Max grabbed Maria’s hand with an amazing amount of strength and announced to her, almost proudly:
“Don’t be sad, lady, you’re going to be the last thing I see.”
To be continued