Silence

The obnoxious buzz of the alarm stirred him to wakefulness, as it always did at a quarter to seven. He opened his eyes and stared into the darkness above the cot he had flung into the corner of the room some weeks before. Another day and he was still here. He sighed heavily and asked the ceiling as he did every night when he woke up, “Is this is the end of the line?” The ceiling never answered, so he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the cot and stood up.

He stretched as far as he could and then began his usual routine. The familiarity of it was the only keeping him sane. Stand up, stretch. Stretch again. Go through the door into the bathroom. Pee. Throw some water on the face. Brush teeth. Slap on some deodorant and decide, as he always did, to shower in the morning after work was done. Then, the fridge. Grab a soda to get charged up. Reach down into the box next to the fridge. Easy mac for dinner again. Rip open the package, add water, throw it in the microwave. Then it was time to get logged in for work.

Sit down. Log into the computer. Turn up the volume on the radio. Log into the phone. Pull the headset of tattered, beaten up old box he had left in the night before. Make sure the battery is still good on it. (It was.) Now the computer is up, log into CAD just in time for the microwave to ding. Stand back up. Go to the microwave, grab the easy mac and a plastic fork from the coffee mug on top of the microwave where he kept all his silverware now. Take it back to the desk. Sit down again. Stir it up. Crack the soda and…

“County from City.”

“Go ahead City,” it was Logan who answered. He and Denise had been taking turns running things during the day out at the joint dispatch center on the edge of town.

“I’m 10–41 and ready for the overnight shift,” he replied. “Anything to report?”

“Fire is doing Plum Street tonight,” Logan said. “Medical supplies remain low and we’re running short on Doctors now that Self at the ER is infected.”

“Copy that. Anything from the outside world?”

“Not a thing,” Logan said.

He sighed heavily again before answering. “Copy. I’m direct on that too. See you on the flip side.”

“Copy that, City. Have a good night.”

Then he was alone in the gathering dark, listening to the sounds of the world burning outside, as it had been for months now. No one knew where the virus had begun, but once it had broken loose, airplanes had spread it too far and too fast to be controlled. Millions died before they realized that strict isolation and quarantine was the only thing that could slow it down and even then, there were no guarantees. That piece of knowledge had come one week too late for his family. There was a picture he kept in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet near the door. The days he couldn’t sleep, the days when it was really bad, he’d take it out and look at it and cry and think about running outside and dying with the rest of them. But those were the bad days. The dark days. Every other day, he forced himself to forget and clung to his routine as if it was the only lifeline he had.

“So,” he said aloud to himself. “There’s no one left alive on Plum Street. Did I know anyone on Plum Street?” He found that talking out loud helped. Just answering the radio wasn’t enough. The silence would grow and stretch and threaten to overwhelm him. Was there still a virus that raged outside? Yes. But as strange as it seemed, once the cities had collapsed and the isolation protocols had been implemented as best as people could, you could almost forget about the virus. It was the silence now- it grew every day. Fewer and fewer voices on the Point-to-Point or the other long distance frequencies. The more the silence grew, the more he felt the isolation affect him, eating at his mind like a cancer. If the virus doesn’t kill us all, he thought, the silence will. The silence will get everyone in the end.

“Battalion Chief to City.” It was the Fire Ops channel. The Chief sounded tired- but then again, they all sounded tired these days.

“Go ahead Battalion Chief.”

“We’re ready on Plum Street,” came the reply. “Go ahead and send out a page and capture our times. We’ll be starting at 1402 Plum Street.”

He rolled his eyes at that. I mean, at this point, did it really matter? But he didn’t argue. Routine was driving the first responders left standing, plain and simple. So the pages went out, the times were captured, because (and this was the delusional part to him) they were going to beat this virus and then rebuild.

He brought up his call screen and selected the correct fire call before hitting the paging tones and waiting as the familiar beeps echoed across the radio before they fell silent and he began to speak. “Engine One, Truck One, Rescue 4, Battalion, respond to 1402 Plum Street for a controlled burn. Time out 1903.”

“Thank you City,” the Battalion Chief said. “We’ll let you know when we’re done with this one.”

“Copy that.”

With fire rolling up their sleeves and setting to work, he stood up and walked over to a bookshelf in the far corner that was bulging with DVDs. Internet service was spotty now and alas, Netflix, Hulu and the other streaming platforms had gone dark when they lost contact with the West Coast a couple of months before. Some well timed ‘donations’ had proven to be a lifesaver. There were more movies and boxed sets of television shows that he could handle. He had already tackled all of the Star Treks, M*A*S*H, Cheers and Supernatural and was in need of a new show to begin. Friends, maybe? He wrinkled his nose- no, too much drama. He closed his eyes and selected one at random and wrinkled his nose in uncertainty as he realized that he had found a season of Frasier. Reluctantly, he decided that it would do.

He spent the next six hours lost in a comforting world of sharp retorts, witty repartee and jokes about opera and sherry that he didn’t really get. He felt himself begin to nod off around episode seven or so and that’s when he heard the long burst of static from the radio and looked up, thinking it was Fire keying their mic and trying to tell him something. They were twelve houses in on Plum Street and his night so far had been periodically saying copy and adding a remark to the fire call, so he assumed that they were trying, yet failing to let him know they were moving onto their next house and the destruction of Plum Street was continuing as planned but-

He froze. It wasn’t the fire channel that was trying to transmit. Instead, it was Mutual Aid. It was an odd channel and one that he had never used all that much. If the weather conditions were right or some weird atmospheric phenomenon came through, they could pick up random traffic from cities up to two hundred miles away. He hadn’t heard a peep out of it for months, when the cities started to fray around the edges and then disintegrate. The pleas for help had grown frantic and become too much to bear, but it had been…

It was gone. The little identifier text,that lit up with every transmission, it’s vivid blue allowing the Dispatcher to figure out who was talking- or trying to talk to them, vanished. He stared at the screen for a long time, waiting expectantly to see if it would reappear, but it didn’t and then he started to question his own mind a bit. Maybe he had imagined it. Maybe he was too tired and too exhausted and something had uncurled inside his brain to make him finally lose it. Maybe this was a dream and he was asleep and-

“Battalion Chief to City,” he about jumped out of his chair. He took a deep breath before keying up the mic to respond, his heart still pounding. “Go ahead,” he replied.

“We’re done with 1201 Plum Street. Moving to the north side of the street now.”

“Copy that, at 0105.”

He pushed it out of his mind as best he could and focused on the rest of the night ahead. It had to have been his imagination, or even some kind of a dream possibly. There was no way. No way, no how. He bent with a will to the hours ahead and focused in on the DVDs he was watching, trying to remember how to laugh and soon enough, it was light again. At least he thought it was.

“City from County.” It was Denise this time. Logan must be sleeping late.

“Go ahead, County.”

“We’re 10–41 and ready for the day shift,” Denise said. “Anything to report?”

“Fire got through about fifty percent of Plum Street last night,” he replied. “They’ll have a company posted there to monitor for any flare ups.”

“Sounds good,” she said. “Anything else?”

He hesitated for a moment, remember the flash on his radio, the long burst of static, before shaking his head. “Nope, I’ll see you on the flip side.”

“Copy that, City. Sleep well.”

With that, he began his usual end of shift routine. Get up, stretch. Step through the door into the bathroom. Pee. Flush. Wash hands. Grab toothbrush, squirt some past on it and brush. Spit, rinse and turn off the lights. Back to the computer. Log out of CAD, put the computer in sleep mode. Mute the radio- he paused for a long moment and closed his eyes replaying the image in his head. It had to have been his imagination. There was no other explanation. None. Unless-

“Am I losing it?” He asked the empty room. “Are my screws finally coming loose?” If he was losing his mind, well, it had been a long time in coming. Maybe he just needed a good solid sleep. Yes, he decided. That was it. Despite the temptation to leave Mutual Aid turned up, even just a little bit, he muted it and reached into the drawer next to his station where he kept a variety of pills. Some for headaches and some for sleep. He grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills and unscrewed the top, pouring two into the palm of his outstretched hand. Then, he stepped back into the bathroom and flipped a faucet on. He shoved the two pills into his mouth and cupped his hands together to catch a palm full of water. He raised his hands to his mouth and swallowed enough to send the two pills rushing down his throat and into his belly.

There, he thought, straightening out and turning off the faucet. That would do the trick. And then, not daring to think about anything else, he turned off the lights in the room, sat down on his cot and, stretching out, pulled the blanket up to his chin and turned over, hoping that sleep would take him quickly. It did.

The obnoxious buzz of his alarm intruded onto his slumber slowly. He felt it before he heard it, his brain not recognizing the noise at first. His consciousness walked up the noise, bent down close and examined it, walked around it a few times before the realization finally hit. It was his alarm. Time to wake up. There was a long burst of static. Time to wake up. Static. Time to wake up- white noise.

He sat bolt upright in his cot and steadied himself. It was just a dream. Right? It had been just a dream. There was no one out there. He took a couple of deep breaths and felt the dream leave him as he swung his legs over the edge of the cot, and, resting his elbows on his knees held his head in hands for a moment before standing up and stretching as far as he could, hearing his back and neck crack as he did so.

The pills had done their work. He felt rested- far more rested than he had in weeks. Until those last few moments of sleep, he hadn’t even dreamt- at least not that he remembered. Then, he began his routine: Go through the door into the bathroom. Pee. Throw some water on the face. Brush teeth. Slap on some deodorant and decide, as he always did, to shower in the morning after work was done. Then, the fridge. Grab a soda to get charged up. Reach down into the box next to the fridge. Easy mac for dinner again. Rip open the package, add water, throw it in the microwave. Then it was time to get logged in for work.

Sit down. Log into the computer. Turn up the volume on the radio. Log into the phone. Pull the headset of tattered, beaten up old box he had left in the night before. Make sure the battery is still good on it. (It was.) Now the computer is up, log into CAD just in time for the microwave to ding. Stand back up. Go to the microwave, grab the easy mac and a plastic fork from the coffee mug on top of the microwave where he kept all his silverware now. Take it back to the desk. Sit down again. Stir it up. Crack the soda and…

“County from City.”

“Go ahead City,” Denise answered and he frowned for a moment. She sounded tired and her voice was strained.

“I’m 10–41 and ready for the overnight shift,” he replied. “Anything to report?”

“Fire is finishing up Plum Street tonight,” she replied. She sighed. “Medical supplies remain low, but we lost the last four families along Ginter Avenue. There’s no one left alive between Kirkwood and the Highway.”

“Copy that,” he replied. “Anything from the outside world?”

“Negative,” she replied. “I have additional, though.”

“Go ahead.”

“Logan is running a low grade fever,” she said. “We think it might be the flu, though.”

He grimaced. No wonder she sounded tired and worried. “You’ve initiated isolation protocols?” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” she said. They had more room out at the County Dispatch center, so it was at least more possible to keep the two of them apart and one of them healthy, but still- it wasn’t good news.

“Hey Denise,” he said. “You get anything unusual come through on Mutual Aid?”

There was a long pause. “No, why?”

“No reason,” he said. “Thought I saw something last night, but it must have been a trick of the light. Is Fire finishing up Plum Street tonight?”

“Affirmative,” she replied.

“Sounds good,” he replied. “See you on the flip side.”

“Copy that, City. Have a good night.”

Then he was alone again, waiting for Fire to begin their work and consign the rest of Plum Street to ash. Maybe they were interpreting the half formed directives from what was left of the CDC wrong. Maybe the burning houses, full of the virus, were becoming airborne, catalyzed with heat and filling the atmosphere with silence and death.

People kept dying and houses kept burning. A flash of a memory came back to him. It had been twlight at the end of a brutally hot and humid day. A year ago, or was it two? They had decided to grill and had grabbed one of those ‘light the bag’ charcoals that promised an easy, quick and painless process in lighting the coals. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that there was, in fact, no truth in advertising. He had used up every match they had and burnt the ends of his fingers on multiple lighters until finally, finally, the bag had caught fire.

He had held his breath and the loosening grip of the humidity of the day, which had brought wind that would have ordinarily been welcome and refreshing but played havoc with his attempts to light the bag of charcoal granted him a respite and he watched the flame grow and expand, sweeping across the upraised end of the bag, inexorably advancing with nothing to stop it. Even the gusts of the warm evening wind were not enough to extinguish the flames, they fed it instead.

Those steaks, he remembered, had been delicious.

“Battalion Chief to City,” the Fire Department was ready to begin their night’s grim work.

“Go ahead Battalion Chief.”

“We’re going to finish up the last of Ginter Avenue before moving onto Plum Street tonight. Send us a page to capture our times, please. Start us at 1102 Ginter Avenue.”

“Copy that,” he replied, thinking back to that summer evening, standing over his grill, watching the flames grow and spread. The virus kills quickly, but the fire and the silence kill slowly, the thought came to him. Is it better to die fast or to wait and watch as the flames grew and grew and advanced toward you, with no way to stop them. And behind the flames was the silence, the silence that chipped away at their sanity bit by bit.

“City from Battalion,” he jumped and realized that he had been staring blankly at the paging screen in front of him.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“City we got tones but no voice.”

“My apologies, Battalion. I’ll page again,” shaking himself to attention. He hit the paging tones again and waited for the familiar beeps to echo across the radio before they fell silent and he began to speak. “Engine One, Truck One, Rescue 4, Battalion, respond to 1102 Ginter Avenue for a controlled burn. Time out 1906.”

“Thank you City,” the Battalion Chief said. “We’ll let you know when we’re done with this one.”

“Copy that.”

The sleeping pills had done their work a little too well, which wasn’t a bad thing, he reflected as he settled in for the long night ahead. Darkness was drawing in faster these days, he could tell from the exterior cameras. Soon it would be winter, soon there’d be snow on the ground- and who knows if anyone would be around to see it? A voice whispered in the back of his mind.

He cracked a soda open and settled in for the long haul, changing his mind and plunging into movies instead of more episodes of television like he had the night before. As he lost himself in one movie and then another, he felt himself relax and weariness crept in again. The pills were wearing off or maybe it was just the long, strange periods of inactivity that did it to him. The phone lines had long since become patchy and intermittent. So the phone did ring. The fire department, though methodical and efficient in their progress down the remainder of Plum Street weren’t lighting up his radio all that much, so maybe it was inevitable- or maybe it was his umpteenth viewing of Lawrence of Arabia that did it, but slowly, inexorably, his head began to nod and-

There it was again. His head snapped up at the unexpected noise, jerking himself back into the waking world and staring in wonder at his radio. Sure enough, there it was: someone was trying to transmit on Mutual Aid.

He reached out and turned the volumes up on the speakers as loud as they could go. Was it just static? Was it a random burst of static in the atmosphere? He listened to it, tried to get to know it- the static danced in his ears, dipping and weaving- this couldn’t be a machine, he realized with a start. It wasn’t rhythmic enough. It didn’t repeat. It… was there a pattern? A surge of excitement ran through him… someone was out there. Someone was transmitting.

The static stopped for a moment and his heart sank, but then it began again. The more he listened, the more he began to believe. Whatever- no whoever it was, for there was no other logical explanation. It had to be a person. It must be a person. Maybe he was a fool for believing that, he probably was, but right now, enveloped in the darkness of the night, alone with a city slowly burning around him, he needed to believe it.

The static stopped again and this time he was ready. “Agency transmitting on mutual aid, repeat your traffic.”

Silence.

“Agency transmitting on mutual aid, repeat your traffic.”

Silence.

“Agency transmitting on mutual aid, repeat your traffic.”

Silence.

“Agency transmitting on mutual aid, repeat your traffic.”

Then, faintly, through the hiss and the crack of static. “Is someone there?”

“Yes, this is Martin County Dispatch, where are you located?”

“Martin County? How the hell am I getting you? I’m all the way in Osceola-” and then there was a long burst of static. “I think we’re-” another one, “losing you-” and then there was silence. He flipped over to the Fire Channel. “Battallion Chief from City.”

“Go ahead City,” came the reply.

“Did you have your radios on scan? I just had a transmission come over Mutual Aid.”

There was a long pause before the reply. “No,” the Battalion Chief said, slowly. “We don’t normally do that. Where was the transmission from?”

“It was hard to tell,” he replied. “I’m pretty sure it was from Osceola County. I’ll see if I can capture a recording now.”

Another long pause. He rolled his eyes, knowing what Battalion Chief was probably saying to the rest of the firefighters. Dispatch has been holed up alone in the bunker for too long. Dispatch’s screws were finally coming loose. Dispatch was infected and the virus was starting in on his brain. They had lost all contact with Osceola County months ago. They were too close to the metro area. Overwhelmed with refugees and unable to effectively isolate their county or their healthy populace they had fallen silent. The chance that someone had survived was slim.

He didn’t have access to the servers that stored the radio traffic from the county, but he couldn’t take the chance and wait until morning. He grabbed his phone and brought up the voice memo feature, hitting record and then… wait, how was he going to do this? Playback only came back through the select channel that was piped into his headphones. That meant- he took his headset off. The quality of this recording was going to suck, but it was all he had until morning. He mashed the phone’s microphone to the headphone and turned the volume up as far as it could go, before hitting record.

The quality was terrible, of course, but there was no mistaking it the sound of an actual, human voice and what they were saying. He saved the recording before texting it to Denise and Logan. ‘Got this off of Mutual Aid last night,’ he typed out. ‘What do you think?’

Then he sat back in his chair, grabbed the remote control and muted the television for a moment and let the silence close in. There was nothing in the room save the sound of his own breathing and the familiar, constant hum of the air handlers. He didn’t want to allow himself the luxury of hope, but there it was- a flicker, a spark. Maybe, just maybe there were survivors out there. Maybe, just maybe, the virus was receding and the worst was over. Maybe-

“City from Battalion Chief,” he jumped at the sudden noise.

“Go ahead, Battalion,” he replied.

“We’re moving down to the five hundred block of Plum Street now.”

“Copy that,” he said. “At 0330.”

The rest of the night, surprisingly, did not seem to last that long. He would have thought that the night would have conspired against him and dragged itself out, minute by minute, second by second until Denise and Logan stirred and came on duty. Both would wake up and be greeted by his text message. Both would react more or less the same way he had- which meant that-

Right at 0630 on the dot, his phone rang.

“Martin County 911,” he answered- out of habit more than anything else.

“Is this real?” It was Logan. His voice sounded weaker than usual.

“Yeah, it came in over Mutual Aid last night.”

“The quality sucks,” Logan replied.

“I don’t have access to the servers, like you do,” he replied.

“I figured. I’m checking them now.”

“You’re up and about?” He asked.

“Fever broke last night,” Logan replied. “No bleeding, so per the guidelines, if I’m still here in a week, Denise can let me run free again.”

“What does she think?”

“Don’t know,” Logan said. “The quality sucks and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s actually from Osceola County.”

“There’s one way,” he replied.

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s the only way to know for sure,” he replied.

“We’re down to one deputy,” Logan said. “And he had just moved up from reserve like ten seconds before the virus broke out.”

“You don’t think it’s worth the risk?”

“No,” Logan replied. “There are multiple bridges between us and Osceola county. If one of them is out, it could take days- weeks even to get someone down there.”

“There could be survivors.”

“If they’ve come this far by themselves, they can come the rest of the way.”

“I’m going to call him and ask.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Logan said.

“He can always say no.”

“But he won’t,” Logan said. “That’s the problem.”

He sat back in his chair and said nothing for a moment. He hadn’t anticipated Logan’s resistance to the idea, but Logan had a point. One transmission was a reason for hope, but their resources were limited. “Well, let’s ask Denise.”

“Can you conference her in?” Logan asked.

“Hang on,” he replied. “Let me see if she’s up.” Placing Logan on hold, he hit the extension for the main County Dispatch line and waited as the phone rang. “Hello,” Denise said as she answered.

“Hang on,” he replied. “Let me patch Logan in.” He clicked the conference button and selected Logan’s call. “Logan are you there?”

“Yeah.”

“Denise is online with us.”

“Let me guess,” Denise said. “You want to send Deputy Do-Right to Osceola County and Logan wants to wait and see?”

“Pretty much,” Logan said. “What do you think?”

“I think I sent him the recording twenty minutes ago and he’s five miles out of town already,” Denise replied with a chuckle.

“Oh,” Logan said. “You didn’t want to see if we could clean it up first?”

“You and I both know the servers are spotty at best,” Denise said. “And with your fever, I’m not waiting to see if there are survivors- especially if they have news from elsewhere- like say of more survivors or even a vaccine.”

“I guess I’m outvoted,” Logan sighed. “Hope you’re both happy.”

“I am,’ he replied, feeling a certain amount of relief.

“It’s a risk worth taking,” Denise replied.

“So we wait,” he said.

“Yes,” Denise replied. “We wait.”

The subsequent nights and days were pure agony for him. Mutual Aid went silent once more and their Deputy, once out of the county was on his own as well. Fire continued their ceaseless march down Plum Street before starting work on Euclid Drive after the last reported victims of the virus had succumbed and soon Euclid Drive was gone, burnt to the ground with only the burnt, charred wreckage of what once had been a perfectly pleasant cul-de-sac left in its wake.

He could feel himself sinking further and further into a darkness he wasn’t sure he was going to escape. What if he had imagined the whole thing? But that was impossible- Denise and Logan and heard it. The Deputy they had sent had heard it. Then he began to scare himself. What if he had subconsciously manufactured the whole thing? What if he was delusional? What if he was already dying, infected or even dead? Reality began to stretch and warp around him, threatening to tip his sanity overboard into a sea of madness.

On the third night, he woke up with a headache.

On the fourth night, he began to feel nauseous.

On the fifth night, he woke up with a fever.

Logan was two days away from being cleared to return to work, so he struggled through the fifth night as best he could, shivering under a blanket and acknowledging radio traffic when he could, but by morning, he knew he couldn’t continue. Logan had access to pen, paper and a portable radio and together, he and Denise told him to stand down. He had food and medicine to treat the fever, which he took and spent the day in bed, shivering and trying to sleep.

On the sixth day the fever was reduced, but not broken, which worried him. Logan’s fever had broken after a day. He ate sparingly and slept again, this time such a deep sleep he didn’t remember dreaming. That night, the sound of the telephone woke up.

He sat up, head pounding. He placed a hand to his forehead and shook his head. Damn fever wasn’t going away. He reached out and grabbed the chair for support and heaved himself into it, before turning and weakly wheeling himself over to his console to answer the phone.

“Martin County 911,” he croaked.

“It’s Denise,” she said. “They’re coming back.”

“You heard from him?”

“Yes,” she sounded excited. “There are survivors- lots of them and there’s a vaccine for the virus- maybe even a cure!”

“How soon-” he stopped as he felt something wet begin to drip from his nose. He reached up to wipe it away, thinking it was mucus, but his when he moved his finger away, he saw it was crimson with own blood.

“They’re on their way back now!” Denise said. “Maybe a week, maybe less!”

“Denise-”

“I can’t believe they have a vaccine! Finally some hope!”

“Denise, I’m bleeding.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “You have to hang on,” Denise said. “I’ll tell Logan, but you have to hang on.”

He smiled weakly. “Thanks Denise,” he said. “If I don’t see you again, it was nice knowing you guys.” Then he hung up and rolled the chair to the filing cabinet. Struggling, he opened the bottom drawer and picked up the picture of his family. Setting it on his lap, he sniffed back the liquid in his nose, feeling the warm taste of the blood as it ran down the back of his throat. He pushed his way back to his cot and heaved himself back into and hugging the picture of his family close his chest, laid back and got himself as comfortable as he could. On an impulse, he took the remote and turned the clicked the television back on. He had no idea what he had been watching, but he didn’t care. He hit play and let the noise fill the room- the laughter of whatever television show it was interspersed with the occasional burst of radio traffic.

He stared up at the ceiling into the darkness. If he was going to die, it wouldn’t be in silence. He clutched the picture of his family, hugging it tight to his chest. The virus might get him, but the silence wouldn’t win.

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