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A boat sailed steadily along into the open waters of an unforgiving sea. Waves pulled the boat onward, water spilling over the sides. It was a mid-sized fishing boat, meant to carry just a few people and a lot of equipment. The engine sputtered to a stop, conserving gasoline for the long trip ahead. It was an older vessel that groaned in protest of the heavy load it carried; almost double that of its suggested occupancy. It was just after sunset.
Mia carefully stepped over the sprawling limbs of the tired and wounded passengers. She sought out a small open space and staggered towards it; her son growing heavy in her arms. The muscles in her legs and back threatened to give way, and she sank into her small spot with a tiny whimper. The stench of blood and body odor turned her stomach. So many people crammed onto such a tiny boat. It was everyone they could find on such short notice.
"How old is your child, dear?" Mia looked to her left, at the woman questioning her. She was an elderly looking woman, pleasant enough, and trying to smile softly behind the grime smudged across her face. It would be alright to talk to her, for now, but don't get too close she warned herself; elderly ladies could be deceiving.
"Evan just turned six. He's a bit small for his age, though." Mia tightened the blanket he was wrapped in, protecting him from the salty sea wind.
"My name is Audrey," said the woman, holding out her wrinkled hand.
Mia considered her options quickly. She could be rude and ignore the gesture. She could shake the woman's hand and take her chances. Seemed like a bit of a gamble, just for pleasantries. This seemingly benign woman could be harboring the virus. Hell, she could even be one of "them," her insides deteriorating as they spoke.
"My name is Mia," she answered, without offering her hand in return. No time like the present to get used to the new world order. Touching strangers was a thing of the past. Everything changed once the virus was discovered.
They called it "the Phoenix Flu." It began as a random and very rare mutation of the common flu virus. A few people with nothing more than fevers and runny noses went to bed one night and didn't get up the next morning. It caused a small amount of alarm, and autopsies were ordered on the bodies. The autopsies never took place, though, because around 24 hours after death, the victims miraculously returned to life.
News traveled fast. Immediately, religious groups rallied to stake claim to the miracle, scientists rushed to prove and disprove medical evidence, and people around the world full-on panicked. It wasn't that anyone wasn't glad to have their loved ones back; it just wasn't the natural order of things. Living things die every day, but they aren't supposed to come back.
A week or so later, it became apparent that something just wasn't right with these second-lifers. Their heartbeats slowed, their brains deteriorated, and a foul smell permeated their skin. The skin around their eyes loosened and hung down in puddles under their eye sockets. Their hair fell out in clumps leaving just wispy patches behind. First they couldn't do basic math, then they forgot their families and within days completely lost the ability to reason. Unfortunately for most, they were also unreasonably strong. They refused to be held prisoner and after killing several military personnel, a bill was quickly passed by the American Senate declaring the second-lifers clinically deceased, and orders were given for their official termination. They were harder than hell to kill though.
If they bit someone or got any of their saliva on an open wound, the victim skipped the flu and regressed straight to zombie-hood within 48 hours. This, combined with the Phoenix Flu claiming more and more victims each week, quickly escalated the event into a raging epidemic. Extremely quick. A month at most.
"Are you traveling alone?" Audrey retracted her hand, looking tired but not the least bit surprised at refusal.
"We've lost a few along the way," Mia said. She rested her head against the blanket, feeling Evan's little body curled up in her lap. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep to avoid further conversation. The little boat rocked to one side, and water spilled over, running down her back. It felt cold but refreshing, she didn't mind it.
A month ago Mia was planning a family vacation, their hearts set on Disney World. A month ago her biggest concern was the impending property tax bill coming due at the same time their washing machine blew out and needed replacing. A month ago she baked a cake, vanilla with raspberry filling, for her husband's 35th birthday. But those things were in the past now, and she couldn't imagine life ever returning to what it was before. A month ago a few people came down with the flu, turned into zombies, and eradicated over three-fourths of the population of the United States of America.
Strange that the Phoenix Flu only popped up in the U.S. Conspiracy theories were plentiful, but true answers would never be found. The rest of the world closed their doors, and their borders, tight. They mournfully watched and waited but offered no form of help, determined to keep the flu quarantined to U.S. soil.
A few weeks earlier, Mia had sat at the breakfast table, keeping Evan company while he ate his cereal. Her husband, Jack, stood in front of the TV, blocking Evan's view of the terror unfolding on the screen. It was set to channel 5, the only channel that still broadcasted anything in the U.S. "No chance they're ever going to un-ground the planes now," he said.
On the TV, images flash across the screen of gruesome non-humans ripping off the doors of a local church. The people hiding inside tried to flee and the zombies lurched after them, grabbing a few and pinning them to the ground. The TV cameras turned away, but you could still hear the sickening sounds of flesh being torn apart.
Mia got up from the table and stood behind Jack, not looking at the TV but at the back of his neck instead. She touched his shoulder. "We can't stay in here forever," she whispered.
Jack looked towards the front door. It was double bolted, nailed shut, boarded up and blocked by three heavy pieces of furniture. "Says you," he answered.
Mia looked back at Evan, his short legs swinging back and forth under his chair. His brown hair was flattened against the side of his face and sticking up slightly in the back. Bed-head they called it. She sighed, exhausted. "We have enough food and water to last a few weeks at best. No one is coming to rescue us, Jack."
The boat jerked violently and Mia raised her head. Crap, she had actually fallen asleep for a moment. It was better to stay awake, stay alert. She shook the memories of her husband and their small two bedroom apartment from her mind. It was best not to think about Jack.