We thought winter would end it, Mama told me once. But after many winters, people still got sick from the bugs. Lots of people, everywhere. Hospitals—where Mama tells me they used to care for injured and ill people—couldn’t even keep up. Those eventually shut down, along with everything else. Because the bugs were just the start. After the first wave of sickness came other things, like bad people taking over. Bad people running the military, bad people separating families and treating people like sick animals. Even the un-sick people. It wasn’t long before Nature herself got upset by humanity’s failures; she showed her wrath in unforgivable ways that left many places in ruins.
I still don’t know how Mama kept us from all of it. The virus, the people, the destruction. Probably all the running we did, all the moving from place to place. Never settling at any place for too long before she took us to the next. It wasn’t until we reached the base mountains years ago, on our way to the home we’re in now, that we learned the virus couldn’t live outside of air pollution. Only insects who breathe the toxic air can carry it. That’s how Mama explains it. Or what she guesses, anyway. Somehow, though, the virus could be passed from a polluted insect-host to any human.
That’s all I really know, and Mama says the rest doesn’t matter. I’m not sure what the pollution even was, but Mama says it was mostly man-made chemicals. In the mountains, free of the cities’ pollution, we were finally safe.
From the virus, anyway.
In times of sadness, Mama still mentions fire. She mourns a lot, mourns a world I don’t know or remember. I don’t understand her emotions, not even now, and when she says I probably never will, her smile is fake. And even sadder than she was before saying it. Fire is probably all that will save the God-forsaken cities, she has said. That’s why this home, even with Daddy gone, is Mama’s favorite. Away from the cities, the military, the population, and the pollution. It’s my favorite too, but just because the only other one I remember, in one of those cities Mama talks about, was too crowded.
I was five, and Mama pregnant with Rose, when word came that people in our area were becoming infected, and Mama said she knew immediately that we had to leave. I didn’t want to go, even though it smelled awful. I was used to the smell, used to playmates and packed cots.
Now, years later, I realize the scent was burnt flesh. Body odor, too. And it makes me a little sick to think the smell had once been comfortable to me.
There were too many of us crammed inside, hiding from the soldiers. Most were sick or injured.
When Mama got word about the virus coming, she took me away in the night, when the only thing lighting our escape was the full moon and the smoke-lit sky to the east. Where a place called Denver used to be.
This is the second installment to the Red Wheelbarrow story. For the first one, visit here.
Jennie is a published author of paranormal fiction, a lover of fairy tales, and an avid supporter of the Oxford comma.