What Survives of Us by Kathy Miner
Naomi sees her first corpse in a Colorado Springs grocery store, but it won’t be her last. With devastating speed, a plague sweeps first the city, then the state, then the world, leaving less than 1% of the population to go on. Naomi, a gentle and sheltered housewife, finds herself fighting for survival in a world populated by desperate people, where might-makes-right, and mercy and compassion are in short supply. Fellow survivors Jack, a youth minister from Woodland Park; Grace, a 17-year-old high school student from Limon; and Naomi’s daughter Piper, a student at the University of Northern Colorado, all find themselves searching for a safe path forward…because it’s not just the world that has changed.
The plague that decimates the human race also pushes mankind into evolutionary change. Those who survive are different, profoundly so, in ways they are just beginning to comprehend. As Naomi struggles to protect and reunite what’s left of her family, she must also learn to understand and accept the changes in herself. In this strange new world, her survival, and the survival of those she loves, depends on it.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult audience
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 4 – R Rated
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I've loved futuristic fiction all my life, and I'm fascinated by human nature – what lengths will we go to, in order to survive? What wouldn't we do, to protect our children? If we're pushed beyond our limits, what will we become? Most of my writing is inspired by my endless curiosity and questions about humanity.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
As cliche as it sounds, I had a dream about my first character, Naomi. The dream was so vivid, so real, that I woke completely disoriented. Other characters arrived when I needed them – some I planned, and some showed up out of the blue. To answer the most common question I'm asked, none of them are "me" and all of them are "me." None of the characters are a direct representation of someone I know – that's just lazy writing, in my arrogant opinion. I don't "copy" a living person to create a living, breathing character. I just get to know them, through and through, before I set them in motion, and then stay true to their nature no matter what.
ONE: Colorado, the first day:
Naomi saw her first corpse in the Safeway on Nevada Avenue. She had stopped in to pick up some salad greens and a gallon of milk for dinner, as well as ingredients for her famous (if she did say so herself) ginger snap cookies. The weathermen were forecasting snow, not unusual for mid-March, and the way the clouds were piling up over Cheyenne Mountain, Naomi figured they’d gotten it right this time. Cookies would be cozy, along with the pot roast she’d had slow-cooking all day.
Unfortunately, predictions of snow always made for long lines at the grocery store. The line at the self-check stretched halfway to the back of the store; it seemed half of Colorado Springs had chosen this store at this time to stock up on storm supplies. Naomi shifted gently from foot to foot, easing the ache in her knees brought on by the change in the weather and the 40 pounds she really should try to lose one of these days. She let her gaze go unfocused and let her mind drift for the moment, resting the relentless hurry of her brain – a trick she’d learned at a self-help seminar or some such.
She had shuffled nearly to the front of the line in this delicious, peaceful state when a flurry of movement and startled exclamations yanked her back to awareness. Up by the registers, someone had collapsed. A cluster of people blocked Naomi’s sight until a man wearing a red Safeway employee vest shot to his feet so quickly, he staggered. His eyes were comically wide – Naomi heard a few people around her laugh reflexively – then he threw his arm across his mouth and nose and walked away swiftly, straight out the front doors of the store.
Naomi blinked. How odd, she thought, and the first tingle of warning slid gently down her spine like cool fingers. She looked back at the fallen figure – a woman, she could see now – and that warning repeated, a cold burning.
She didn’t hesitate. Calmly, she stepped out of line, and set the basket she was carrying on the nearest shelf. Her walk was swift but unhurried as she followed the Safeway employee out the front of the store. Not until she was locked in her vehicle with engine running and heat blasting did she process what she had seen.
That woman had been dead. Naomi squeezed her eyes shut, but the image was still there – a young woman, her hair dark with moisture or sweat, stringing across her forehead and stuck to her cheeks. Her skin grayish and strangely mottled, like Naomi had never seen before. Her lips blue, cracked and swollen, parted over straight white teeth.
And her eyes. Naomi crossed her arms, clutched her elbows with her hands and squeezed, trying to steady the shaking that had started in her legs and moved up through her torso. Her staring eyes, bloodshot, light-less, empty. Naomi had never seen empty eyes before.
“Just calm down,” she muttered to herself. “Just get home. You’re okay.” She took several deep breaths and eased her vehicle out of the parking lot, hyper-focused on the mundane tasks of driving. Rearview mirror. Reverse. Brake. Shift. Gas. She could hear sirens approaching rapidly, and she didn’t want to be here when the emergency vehicles arrived.
She didn’t want to question why she had abandoned her groceries and walked out – such a rude and graceless gesture, she despised finding other people’s castoffs in the grocery store, really, was it such an effort to return that unwanted item to its proper place? Most of all, she didn’t want to think about the dead woman, or the way her face looked, like it was already rotting. Naomi shuddered.
She had been to funerals, of course. She had seen preserved, molded and made-up bodies from a distance, but always from a distance. Naomi had never been able to explain the cold terror, the sense of terrible wrongness she felt at such events. Those horrible corpses, so like and so terribly unlike a sleeping human.
This wasn’t quite the same feeling, though. The woman’s corpse had been awful, but not wrong. She tried to sort it out as she drove home, but couldn’t fit words around what she was feeling. Those that kept coming made no sense: Dread. Danger.
Snowflakes were swirling fast and thick against her windshield by the time she pulled in her driveway, and what little dusk Colorado Springs experienced was gone. Her headlights cut through the dark to illuminate her garage door as it rose; in the house, lights glowed, and the familiarity of it all brought tears to her eyes. Home, heart, everything.
Scott’s car was already in the garage – home early because of the weather. He’d called mid-afternoon to say he’d pick Macy up from her after-school program, and she predicted she’d find them both curled up with a book by the wood-burning stove in the keeping room; Naomi maintained a strict “no electronic media on a weeknight” rule for Macy, even on Fridays, and Scott had always and ever followed the house rules in support of his children. Naomi gathered her purse and the shopping bags she’d collected on her afternoon errands, and headed into the house.
The scent of pot roast was rich in the air as she stepped inside. Persephone was waiting for her just as she always was, soft, golden, butterfly ears perked forward, small head cocked to the side. Her body quivered, but she stayed seated, as she’d been taught, until Naomi set her bags down on the bench in the mudroom and hung up her purse and coat. Naomi held her arms out and the little dog leaped.
“There’s my good girl, what a sweet girl, yes, I missed you, too,” she crooned, and closed her eyes, enjoying the dog’s soft, warm fur and comforting weight against her chest. Persephone snuffled under her chin, gifting Naomi with tiny, enthusiastic licks along her jaw. Naomi laughed and hugged her lovingly before she set the dog down, feeling tension drop away from her shoulders and back. There. She was home. Her world was right once more.
“Check it out – how weird is that?”
Grace looked up from her homework as her little brother gestured at the TV. Benji was watching the evening news for his social studies current events assignment, and the TV was tuned to a local channel. On the screen, a fire truck, ambulance, and half a dozen cop cars were sitting in front of a Safeway store, lights flashing. “What happened? Did somebody rob the store?”
“Nuh-uh. This woman just dropped dead. Now they won’t let anyone leave the store because they think she might have a communication disease.”
“’Communicable,’” Grace corrected. “Where is this – Colorado Springs?”
“Yep,” Benji answered. “Southgate area, they said. Where’s that at?”
“Down south, not far from the World Arena – you know, where we saw ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ with Dad?”
They passed through Colorado Springs once a month on their way to visit their dad, his new wife and their brand new baby half-brother in Woodland Park, and sometimes went on the weekends to shop or catch a movie with their mom and step-dad. Lately, Grace had been visiting even more frequently on dates with her boyfriend, William. There wasn’t much to do in dinky little Limon. She tried to think of what else would be nearby that Benji would recognize. “It’s not far from the zoo, just a little north and east, I think.”
“Okay.” He frowned in concentration as he wrote carefully in his notebook. “Will you spell ‘communicable,’ please?”
Grace smiled. “Sure thing, buddy.” He was so cute, with his polite, studious, serious ways. As little brothers went he was bearable, though she suspected he had been in the bushes with his buddy Nate the other night, spying on her and William when he brought her home. Some blackmail might be in the works. “Did they say what disease they thought she had?”
Benji read from his notes in his best “Announcer Bunny” voice, not that he’d ever let his friends know he still watched Between the Lions on PBS. He was in 7th grade for pity’s sake – way too old for a show that taught kids to read. “Authorities refuse to speculate as to the nature of the woman’s illness,” he read from his notes, “But we will keep viewers informed as this story breaks.” He paused, wrote something down, then continued in his normal voice. “They think she was a soldier from Fort Carson, and that she was really young. Some people inside the store called the news station and talked to the reporters before the police took their phones away.”
“Huh. The police took their phones?” That struck Grace as extreme. “Bet they weren’t too happy about that.” She returned her attention to her own homework, but a part of her mind had locked onto the story, the facts clicking into place with too few pieces to complete a picture. She’d follow up, she decided, later this evening, either online or on the late news. Grace couldn’t resist either puzzles or mysteries, and this story seemed like both.
Brian Nelson flopped down on the bleachers beside Jack Kiel – Pastor Jack to the kids – and lifted his t-shirt to wipe his dripping face. The raised shirt revealed a regretful expanse of white belly spreading over the top of his basketball shorts. He tugged the shirt back down and wheezed in air. “Darn altitude. Can’t catch my wind.”
Jack didn’t smile, and figured that would count in his favor when the Day of Reckoning came. Brian had moved to Colorado at least 20 years ago. “Yeah. It takes getting used to, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, shut up.” Brian’s reply was easy and without heat. “I’m fat and out of shape. Even lies of omission are a sin.”
Jack laughed, and together they watched Jack’s youth group kids – including Brian’s oldest son – hustle the basketball up and down the court. It would be Jack’s turn to substitute next, when one of the players needed a break or a drink of water. Or a minute to flirt with the group of teenaged girls watching the action, Jack thought, and smiled. Some things never changed.
“Small group this week,” Brian commented after a few minutes. “Where’s Ava and the kids from the Springs?”
“She got called into work, last minute,” Jack answered.
Ava Beckett was a Colorado Springs police officer who attended their Woodland Park church with her husband, also a cop, every week. They were both Safety Resource Officers in Springs-area high schools, and had organized a group of kids to come up the pass to play basketball every Friday night with Jack’s youth group kids. It had proven to be an interesting experience; most of Jack’s kids were from sheltered, middle-class families, and the kids Ava brought all fell into the “at-risk” category. Watching the two groups learn to mingle and understand each other, and to develop tentative, fledgling friendships had been immensely rewarding.
“That would stink,” Brian commented. “One of the advantages of being an accountant, I guess. Other than April 15th, I don’t get called in for emergencies. Did she say what was going on?”
“Some kind of quarantine situation,” Jack answered, “I guess there was a death at a grocery store in the Springs, and they don’t know what the woman died of. The health department took one look and called in the CDC. Ava says they’re bringing in cots and bedding for the people still in the store, keeping them over night. She’s working crowd control – I guess a lot of family members have gathered, and they’re angry and scared.”
“I would be too, I imagine. Probably just another case of West Nile,” Brian predicted, then nodded at the action on the floor. “Getting a little hot out there.”
He was right, Jack thought – elbows were being applied just a little too liberally. “Hey!” He shouted. Shoes shrilled on the floorboards as the action stopped, and ten faces swiveled his way, several of them more flushed than they ought to be. “Don’t make me come out there and whup up on ya’ll! Keep the elbows tight, boys!”
Perfect time for a pastor to sub in, he decided, watching them scuff and grumble. He stood and peeled out of his sweatshirt. Unlike Brian, his thirties hadn’t brought weight problems with them, a fact he owed at least as much to good genetics and these Friday night basketball games as to his eating habits. “Alright, you babies, which one of you wants to get a drink of water and sweet-talk the ladies?”
He jogged onto the court, serenaded by a chorus of giggles from the girls, and slapped the kid with the reddest face on the shoulder. “James, why don’t you take a break and give an old man a chance to play?”
Naomi dropped the last dish in the drainer and hung her soggy towel on the oven bar to dry. Dinner done, dishes done, and a luxurious Friday night stretched out in front of her. For the most part, she had managed to hold her sense of unease at bay; she hadn’t mentioned the dead woman in Safeway to Scott, and she didn’t intend to. She wasn’t in the habit of keeping secrets from her husband, but she couldn’t see how any good would come out of talking about it. Just a lot of baseless speculation, she had decided. No need to let that into her cozy world this evening.
Scott had headed out to putter at his workbench in the garage, but not before he’d slid his hand slowly and lovingly down her spine and dropped a kiss on the nape of her neck. Naomi smiled. He was consistent, maybe even predictable, but the upside of that was anticipation. Twenty-three years, and that slow smile of his could still rev her up.
Macy had a 4-H project spread out on the kitchen table, and was humming softly to herself as she worked. Her hair seemed to glow in the soft light, a shade exactly between her father’s red and her mother’s blonde, the purest strawberry Naomi had ever seen. She’d once asked a stylist if she could match it – Naomi’s blonde had been maintained in salons for years now – but the stylist had shaken her head. “That color is a gift from the gods,” she’d said. “You’d end up with orange or pink. Better just enjoy it on your daughter.”
And Naomi did, smoothing her hand over her daughter’s shining head, as she had done thousands of times before. Macy was in her second year of sewing, and was piecing together a simple quilt from scraps Naomi had given her. Naomi sat down beside her, and Macy handed her a piece.
Naomi smiled, and fingered the Black Watch plaid. “A shirt I made for daddy when we were first married. The sleeves weren’t quite long enough, but he wore it anyway. He just rolled the sleeves up, even in the dead of winter, and he never said a thing.”
Macy smiled. “That’s just like daddy.” She handed her another scrap, a tiny mint-green gingham check. “This one?”
“A little jumper I made for Piper, when she was just tiny. I made one in every color of gingham they had.” She reached across the table, selected pink, yellow, blue. “I called her my rainbow baby.”
Macy took the piece back, rubbed it between her finger and thumb, then held it to her cheek. “I miss her. I wish she would come home more often.”
“I miss her too, punkin.” In so many ways, Naomi thought. She missed those easy baby years, when she’d been the bright center of Piper’s world, instead of a source of discomfort, strain and disappointment. Her oldest daughter was finishing up her junior year at the University of Northern Colorado – not all that far away, but she didn’t choose to visit home very frequently.
Piper had been almost twelve when Macy was born, a surprise tag-a-long. She had adored her baby sister on sight, and that adoration continued to be mutual – Macy was convinced her older sister hung the moon. Naomi always thought of Macy as the magical glue that held her family together. Her birth had come along just as Piper decided her mother was an embarrassing throw-back to the 1950’s, possessed no discernible ambition beyond being “Suzy Homemaker” and rescuing stray animals, and therefore was a failure as a modern woman and role model for her daughter.
When she gave voice to her criticisms, she came up hard against her beloved father’s disapproval. Scott rarely stepped in to discipline the girls, but he’d made it perfectly clear that he would brook no disrespect for Naomi. Piper might not have given a rip for her mother’s feelings, but her father’s good opinion meant the world to her. She had never spoken of it again, but her disdain for Naomi and the choices she’d made was clear.
Naomi had tried to bridge the gap, of course. She’d reached out, read books, attended seminars, but nothing she’d learned or tried had worked. In the end, she’d reached the conclusion that time was the only healer. When Piper knew herself better, when she understood her own value as a woman, she’d be more accepting of the choices her mother had made.
“I have an idea.” Naomi looked at the clock, and calculated. They might just catch her before her Friday night social life revved up. “Let’s Skype her. We should find out what her plans are for Easter.”
Macy’s smile dazzled. “I’ll get the laptop!”
Ten minutes later, that same dazzling smile shone on Piper’s face via the computer monitor. “Hey, bitty bean! Are you rebelling at last, breaking the weeknight ‘no electronics’ rule? Better not let Mama Bear catch you – she’ll put you on pooper-scooper detail for sure.”
Naomi leaned over Macy’s shoulder and smiled warmly in spite of the pinch to her heart. “It was Mama Bear’s idea,” she said lightly. “We missed you. Are you getting ready to go out?”
Piper grimaced. “Sort of. Study group at the pub. Hopefully we’ll get something done before too many ‘adult beverages’ have been consumed.”
“Well. Good luck with that.” Naomi straightened. “I’ll let you girls chat for a bit. Macy, don’t disconnect until I’ve talked to her, please.”
She puttered around the kitchen, listening to Macy talk about her life, about the things that shaped the world of a 10-year-old: 4-H, the horse camp she was desperate to attend this coming summer, school. And she savored the patience and warmth in Piper’s voice as she responded to her little sister; oh, these girls, they were her whole wide world, the breath in her lungs.
“Mama,” Macy hopped up from her spot at the table, and gestured to the computer. “She has to get going. Better ask her about Easter.” To the screen: “Please come home for Easter, Piper, we could do eggs, it would be so fun.”
Naomi took Macy’s place. “So, do you have plans for that weekend? Easter’s on the 8th this year.”
As she spoke, Ares strutted into the kitchen, stretched, sat down on his pudgy kitty behind and yowled for his supper. Piper laughed. “Sounds like you’re still starving Ares to death, poor boy.”
Naomi scooped him up and snuggled him, the only human afforded that privilege. Ares was a rescue, like all their animals, and even though he’d been with them for years, he would permit no one but Naomi to touch him. “Easter?” she prompted. She was tempted, oh so tempted, to play the “Macy would love to see you” card.
“I’m not sure, mom. I’ll see how my big project is going and let you know.” Piper was majoring in Sociology, and loved everything about her course of study. People fascinated her. “Hey, big excitement down your way tonight, huh?”
“What do you mean?” But Naomi knew. She knew. A cold fist of fear tightened in her chest.
“That Safeway we always shop at, on Nevada – you didn’t hear about that woman dying, and the officials quarantining the place? Oh, yeah.” Piper’s lips twitched in a sneer she didn’t bother to hide. “No media on a weeknight.”
“They quarantined the store?” Naomi didn’t realize she had clutched Ares to her chest until he let out a snarky meow and struggled to get down. “Why? Did they say why?”
“I told you – a woman died. Must have been some kind of terrible disease – they’ve called in the CDC and CNN says they’ve got the National Guard on alert just in case.”
“In case what? Why would they need the National Guard?” Lord, should she have stayed? Had she brought home some sort of contagion, endangered her family? She was nearly panting, and could hear hysteria pushing through in her voice. Piper frowned, and Macy looked up from across the table, small face wrinkled in concern.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Yeah, geez, take it easy, mom. I’m sure they’ll get the whole nasty mess all cleaned up before double coupon Tuesday.”
Naomi took a big breath, held it for a moment, then exhaled the hurt Piper’s snotty tone had lodged in her heart. She tilted her head to the side, and examined her daughter’s delicate face, that darling, tilted nose Piper hated – too cutsey – the waterfall of fine, straight blonde hair she’d inherited from her mother – hot pink streaks this week, Naomi rather liked them – and her father’s green as moss eyes.
“You’re so pretty.” Piper hadn’t tolerated compliments on her beauty since she was 15, claiming she intended to use her brains, not her looks, to achieve her goals. For once, Naomi didn’t care about inciting her daughter’s wrath. “I know you don’t like it when I say that, but you are. And as beautiful as you are, you’re 100 times as smart. I love you, honey.”
Macy, bless her sensitive little heart, chose that exact moment to drape herself over her mother’s shoulders and beam at her sister. “I think you’re pretty too, Piper.” Her smile took on a crafty slant. “Will you bring me a present? When you come for Easter? Pleeeaaaaase?”
Piper’s face was soft. “We’ll see, bitty bean. I’ll do my best.” Her face stayed tender as she met her mother’s eyes, and Naomi’s chest ached with warmth, delight, love at the rare softness from her daughter. “I love you too, mom. Have a good night.”
In the years that would follow, Naomi would take this moment out and cradle it close, savoring it as a perfect moment, a gift, something she recognized as precious even as it was happening. Her baby girl, gentle little arms wrapped around her neck, soft silky cheek pressed to hers. And a warm smile from her beautiful warrior daughter, a young woman so full of strength and power, eager to take her place in a world about to change forever.
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