James was eleven years old. He already knew numbers were important. His sister, Melanie, had been sick for three days. She had a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. They lived six miles from downtown in a two-story house at 1476 Crescent Terrace. Melanie was eight-years old, but she had a birthday in 17 days and would be nine. James’ parents were in their forties and had been married for almost 20 years. His father was an actuary, which James knew had quite a bit to do with numbers. His mother was a librarian and had worked at the same city library for seven years. It was 63 days until Christmas and it had been three weeks since the dead began returning.
James’ parents had, he knew, been making quite an effort to, at first, conceal from him, and then minimize, the nature of the troubles in the city. They whispered constantly and tried to restrict access to the computers and televisions in the house, but even though James was only eleven, he already knew Mrs. Shorter, who lived three houses down, was an alcoholic who had had slept with some of the older boys in the neighborhood. Mr. Shorter was apparently a very hard worker, since he was seldom at home. James also knew Timmy McAfee had been sent away briefly twice for mental issues and that Rose Felton, who was only 16, was pregnant. James thought it was a bit unrealistic for his parents to think he could be kept from the knowledge that dead people were coming back to life and attacking their own friends and families.
Melanie was a very bright girl with dark hair and eyes. She played soccer and was quite good at it. She told James that she didn’t believe the stories people were telling about the new sickness, but since school had been cancelled indefinitely almost two weeks ago, she had been very quiet and avoided conversation, mostly keeping her nose stuck in Harriet the Spy and Stuart Little. Two days ago that very nose had begun to run with a clear discharge and her throat had gotten very sore. The next day she began to feel weak and very warm to her mother’s touch. On Tuesday, yesterday, she developed a fever of 101 and today it was worse. James’ parents had made him swear that he would not breathe a word to any living soul about Melanie being sick, and, while he didn’t quite understand why, he knew they were scared.
Late October was generally cool where James lived and sometimes it would even snow. Everybody was staying indoors now because of the things happening in the city. He hadn’t been allowed out to see any of his friends, except when he was with his parents, although he and Frank Blakemore, the kid who lived straight through his back yard, would signal each other with flashlights at night, maybe just to prove to each other that they were still alive. The libraries were closed and his mother stayed home, although James’ father still left the house each day, but James wasn’t sure if he was going to work, because he wasn’t wearing his coat and tie like he usually did. James’ mother still went next door to see Mary Welker sometimes, and she still went to the grocery store once every few days, but she hadn’t brought any milk the last time, although there had been plenty of soda cans and Chef Boyardee.
James knew that his father wanted to try and take Melanie to the doctor. Doctor Patel had been his and Melanie’s doctor probably since he had been born. She was very short for a doctor, hardly taller than James himself, and James felt she washed her hands somewhat more frequently than was actually called for, but she was nice in a serious sort of way. Apparently there was a problem with seeing the doctor, though. James’ father explained that almost all the doctors had been called to deal with the emergency developing in the city and that regular patients would have to wait. James wasn’t sure he quite understood this, since there were health units already patrolling the neighborhood. He saw them come by in their white vans that clearly said “Health Unit” right on the side of them, but his parents hadn’t flagged them down. Sometimes the vans were accompanied by the police, or even soldiers. James wasn’t sure why.
It was Wednesday night and Melanie wasn’t getting any better. She was having trouble keeping her food down, but for the moment she was sleeping. James’ parents, looking very tired were sitting on the front porch talking quietly. It was not terribly cold, although there was a rising wind coming from the northwest and it would soon bring a frigid chill. James knew that if not for their desire to keep secrets from him, they would be sitting on the warm couch in the living room. As they talked, Mr. Welker crossed over through the gap in the hedge from next door. James moved to the window to see if he could hear what was being said.
“What’s going on, Bob? Any news?” inquired James’ father.
“Not any good news, Jim. Mary tells me Melanie is sick.”
James’ father glared at his wife with a gaze more frigid than any northwest wind.
“She’s alright Bob. She’s just had a little bit of a sore throat for couple of days. Nothing unusual for this time of year.”
“That’s not what I hear. Mary says she’s running a high fever.”
“What would Mary know?” James’ father replied, his voice rising. “Doesn’t she have her own business to attend to?”
James saw that several more of the neighborhood men were beginning to gather. It was too soon for them to have been attracted by the raised voices; they had probably already planned to meet there at that exact time. None of them looked happy.
“Jim, you know what’s happening. We’re in a hell of a mess here. All sicknesses, no matter how minor, have to be reported. We have to take precautions.”
James had known Mr. Welker for as long as he could remember and he had climbed that big oak tree in Mr. Welker’s back yard maybe a million times. Mr. Welker always let him play with his dog, Spencer, because James didn’t have a dog of his own. James hardly recognized the man standing in his front yard now.
James’ mother tried to whisper, “Jim, I’m so sorry. I needed to try and get Melanie some medicine. I had nowhere else to turn.” But James’ father wasn’t listening. He was sizing up the growing crowd in his yard. There were now a dozen men with some of their wives hanging back behind them.
“Jim,” said Mr. Welker, “we could have called this in. Out of respect for you and your family, we decided to handle it ourselves. Just bring Melanie out and if she is ok we can all go about our business with no harm done.”
James’ father stood up and walked down the front steps to stand in front of the crowd of men. James had never thought of his father as a particularly large man, but he looked tiny and alone now with his back to the window.
“Look,” he began, “we’ve all known each other for years. A lot of us have shared the better part of our lives with each other here in this neighborhood. I know something terrible is happening to our world, but Melanie is just a child; she just has a bad cold. She’s not going to turn into a monster. Are you going to kill an innocent child because she has a cold?”
The crowd of men stared downward as James’ father spoke, but they showed no signs of retreating.
“Jim,” replied Mr. Welker “we all share your concern for your child, but everyone here has already lost a friend or family member to this disease. Most of us don’t know how many may be already affected because we can hardly get through to anybody. You know what the signs of the sickness are and you know that Melanie may have it. We can’t take the chance of her dying and going on a rampage.”
“We’ll tie her down!” James’ mother shouted from the porch, looking as if she had just discovered the cure for cancer. “We’ll tie her down until she gets better!”
Mr. Welker ignored the outburst and did not look at James’ mother. “You know how this thing spreads, Jim. You know what has to be done. You have a wife and a son still to take care of. Don’t make this worse than it has to be.”
James’ father made a move as if to run back towards the house, but three of the neighbors were on him before he could completely turn. Though he struggled, James could see his father was no match for the three larger men. They were probably not actuaries, thought James. “Drag him over to my house and hold him there until we resolve this” hollered Mr. Welker. James’ mother began to scream.
Three more of the men pushed past his mother into the house and headed upstairs, with Mr. Welker in the lead. They must have seen James standing there by the window, but they ignored him. James’ mother tried to follow them up the stairs, but the last man shoved her back and she collapsed on the last step and sat there, suddenly quiet. James thought to comfort her, but the look on her face held him back.
The men returned with Melanie wrapped in a blanket and hurried back out to the porch. James could hear Mr. Welker talking. “She’s almost unconscious. Her sheets were soaked with sweat, but she’s shivering and seems cool to the touch. This little girl is very ill. I can’t say for sure what it is, but we just can’t afford to take any chances.”
“Maybe we should call a health unit” volunteered one of the other men.
“And what,” responded Mr. Welker sarcastically “have all of us dragged off to a quarantine camp for having come in contact with her? You want to explain that to your wife and kids, if and when they ever see you again?”
James suddenly felt a deep sense of loneliness and acutely missed his sister for the first time in his life, even though he had just seen her go out the door. He went and sat by his mother on the stairs. She was pale and trembling.
“I need to fix supper” she said, but she made no move to go. James was confused; they had already eaten supper.
A few moments later James heard two tremendous thumps, like a giant stomping in the front yard. They were not at all like the pops and cracks he had heard coming from the direction of the city for the last few nights. He sat there with his mother as she rocked back and forth, saying nothing. A fire now flickered in the front yard and the smell of the burning flesh seeped into the house even before his father returned home.