No one thought the world was going to end on a Tuesday; and it didn’t, not really.
Just the impossibly small world of Ainsley Caldwell.
She imagined she wasn’t unusual for a Louisiana youth; she wanted to be a jazz musician, or an impressionist painter, or a mystery writer. She wanted to house the bayou in her blood, and soul. Growing up only twenty-nine miles from New Orleans, the speak easy lifestyle bled into her everyday life without effort. She’d sneak out with her friend’s older siblings to spend the twilight hours in Jazz clubs and alley concerts. She’d play shells on the boardwalk, and chase fireflies through the swamps.
New Orleans had a kind of magic in the thick air, a mystery that no one seemed eager to solve. Anything was possible if you closed your eyes between thunder claps. If you stepped between raindrops and just let the atmosphere wash over you. Ainsley wanted to breathe that magic deep into her lungs, and hold it there—letting it seep into the marrow of her bones; spark something bright and colorful that could last the twenty-nine mile drive home.
Ainsley’s father was a hard nosed man from rural Mississippi, born into poverty and elevated out of it with athletic merit and a single minded drive. He had played football for Ole Miss, a second string quarterback who had no ambitions for the professional league. He attended school in Jackson, Mississippi for his medical degree; emerging years later as a resident trauma surgeon. He married his college sweetheart, who left her studies toward being a teacher when she became pregnant.
Ainsley was supposed to be a boy, which would be the first thing her father would say when he decided to amble into the room. She was supposed to be a boy, and she was supposed to carry on the family name. She was actually Ainsley Beaumont Caldwell, Jr. but that suffix very rarely made it onto anything other than her driver’s license (the clerk at the DMV wouldn’t let her omit it, seeing as her social security card and birth certificate both had the Jr.; something about security after 9/11). When the doctor delivered her and everyone was surprised to see a baby girl, her father had refused to change his mind.
A stubborn man, a trait that turned out to be hereditary.
Everyone in LaPlace, Louisiana knows the history—the slave rebellion in 1811, the annual Andouille festival in October, the flooding of 1871. It is the kind of small town southern pride that was spoon-fed to the youth early; but Ainsley’s heart was always a little further down at the end of the port. The jazz capital of the world.
She fell in love for the first time in The City that Care Forgot; a tourist boy who’s family was traveling coast to coast. He had a nice smile and the excited air of someone who wanted to see everything. She dragged him from corner to corner, watching the performers enchant and sway. He clapped and hollered, and only minutes before midnight, he kissed her.
True love is so easy to believe in at sixteen.
He left the next day, and she cried for longer than she had even known him. A sensitive soul, her grandfather always said about her, a bent farmer who she saw every few years when her parents were fighting and they decided to ship her off to her grandparent’s for the summer—giving them time to heal their marriage. He was a sweet man who didn’t want for much, and he taught her how to play the banjo, and the harmonica, and the saxophone. He’d tell her stories about magic, and adventure, and she wished she could live in the world he created.
But far too soon, life happened.
She begged, and pleaded, and cajoled, but her parents weren’t budging—no, her father wasn’t. She wasn’t going to be a musician, or an artist, or a writer—she would be respectable and follow in her father’s footsteps. She’d become a doctor. She coached herself so many nights on how to confront her father, how to tell him she would do what she wanted—she’d follow her dreams.
But she could never muster up the courage.
Not through undergraduate, not while at medical school, not during her specializations.
Somewhere along the way she accepted her lot in life, she even started to look forward to how she could help people—a new kind of passion, a thirst for some kind of salvation. Especially when she had seen firsthand how badly some people needed a helping hand after hurricane Katrina. Becoming a trauma surgeon like her father, she did her two year residency in Miami; wrought with gang violence and an escalating population, it was a gauntlet of a task.
But she found the light at the end of that tunnel.
Her father was on the board of Ochsner Medical Center, and nepotism hasn’t gone out of style.
He carved out a spot on their rotation for her.
The messages in her mobile phone have begun to pile up; his tone hardening, and growing angry. Each one demanding a reply. She listened to them when everything was quiet, when twilight hit and the need for that Speak Easy magic began to crawl into her blood.
She was finally caving into his demands when a bulletin went out through the medical community.
Médecins Sans Frontières was looking for volunteers to go into a small peninsula country on the Black sea that was wrought with peril. A fast spreading illness. She read through the facts presented, and had already done a stint with MSF after residency—nothing untoward. Nine months spent in Paraguay treating the Chagas disease, travelling between rural communities in relative safety.
Three beers, eight shots of tequila, and three drafts of her resume later, she’d volunteered to go.
Her vaccinations were up to date, her passport was valid, and within 48 hours she was rostered to depart with MSF in the first wave of volunteers.
Doctor Ainsley Beaumont Caldwell, Jr.—Alphabet to her friends—left only one voice message for her parents before she left on her one fifteen in the morning flight.
(Only weeks later she’ll wish she’d said so much more when she’d had the chance.)
“Ma,” a deep breath, “Dad. I’m probably not gonna be around for a while, yeah? Something real nasty has broken out in Eastern Europe, you’ve probably gotten the notice too. I’ve hooked back up with MSF to go help out.” She paused, watching the worn down businessmen and tired flight attendants trudge down the nearly empty halls. “Dad, I’m just not ready to be you yet. I’m not—I’m not this person, and I don’t want to make seven figures a year. I just—I wanna help people. This is my chance.”
Slumping against the wall, she heard the artificial female voice call for her flight—the terminal light blinking in the bright lights. “I’ll understand if there isn’t a spot open for me when I get back.”
Last call. “I love you.” End call.
Getting into the country was relatively easy, they were welcomed with eager—if horribly desperate—arms. The locals were clearly rattled, shaken in ways she wasn’t familiar with. The clinics and temporary hospitals were set up in urban centers, and everything was just starting to slant into the positive light—even if it was just because the first part was finished—when they came.
Ainsley can’t call them people, because there is nothing human about them. They are bloodied teeth and unflinching curled fingers. They tear through the nurses and doctors like wet tissue paper; biting and clawing. There’s something impressive about the human’s fight or flight response—it kicks in without prompting, it jacks up the pulse and hammers blood through your veins before you even realize.
She chose flight.
With the help of the paramilitary personnel that had set up with them, a handful of medical professionals made it out alive—dozens slaughtered, and Ainsley can still remember the carnage clearly. Many of those who lived had been bitten or scratched—Ainsley included.
They bunkered down in an abandoned cabin in the middle of the forest—nine people in total, seven wounded by the…infected.
“We’ll wait it out,” one of the senior doctors breathed, his British stiff upper lip showing as he cradled his mauled hand to his chest, “gather our wits, and find a way out of the country.”
“You’re an idiot if you think they’re letting us leave,” one of the military men scoffed, hoisting his assault rifle more securely against his chest, narrowed eyes peering out into the dark. “We’re on our own; they’ve already given us up for dead.”
Ainsley’s asleep when it happens—when it really happens—a few of the team had fallen ill with fever a few hours into their vigil. Sweating profusely, coughing and—one or two of them—bleeding from their nose. Doctors make terrible patients, they think themselves above the banal sickness of the masses—that because they understand disease and death on such a basic and cellular level they can avoid it. That it doesn’t apply to them.
In the hours just before dawn the silence is broken in a crack of blunt human teeth into barely living flesh, and the groan of something inhuman. Writhing the first of them shudders to life—or un-life—or into their catatonic vegetative state—digging teeth immediately into the feverish skin of their closest companion.
Ainsley is woken by the sharp sound and acidic smell of gunpowder as the armed men open fire. They seemed to have little regard for who the bullets found homes in—blood falling viscous and red against the windows and floor. Bodies slumping over unmoving, while others seemed to disregard the carnage. Clawing and dragging their writhing bodies across the rustic wood of the floor.
One of the paramilitary men—Jason, his name was Jason—was pulling her to her feet, and toward the door, a bloody hand wrapped inhumanly tight fingers across her ankle. Tugging, and clawing. The blade that she’d wretched off one of the military men back at the base camp felt heavy in her hands—a hundred, a thousand, a million pounds heavy.
There’s something impressive about the human’s fight or flight response—it kicks in without prompting, it jacks up the pulse and hammers blood through your veins before you even realize.
She chose fight.
Up ending the blade in her hand, she thrust it shakily into the eye socket of the man who had been her superior. There was nearly nothing recognizable about the maw of bloody teeth, and the milk white of his sightless eyes—no, eye. Because as her blade went hilt deep, he shuddered and fell lifeless.
She put up no struggle when the only other person left standing pulled her out into the forest—to a ridge far through the wood. The sun was just tipping over the horizon of the water—bright, and gold, and beautiful. Her atomic watch beginning to chirp as it always did with the official time of sunrise—glancing down, the digital display on her wrist spelled out the statistics.
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014. 7:16AM.
“This is insanity.” Jason breathes at her side, not nearly as taken by the sunrise as Ainsley. “This is fucking insane.”
Blinking slowly, she glanced up at him, cradling her bitten arm against her chest—she was sorting through the things known about the disease, including the small percentage that seemed immune. It had been nearly twelve hours since her exposure—no fever, no cold sweats, no catatonic madness.
“The main clinic is in Novoselky,” Ainsley says, even to herself her voice sounds flat and distant, “we should head that way.”
“Are you insane?” He exclaims, holding his rifle closer, like every creak in the woods is another infected waiting to pounce.
“Do you have a better idea?”
No, no he didn’t. But there was no good idea—the clinic in Novoselky was dismantled and overrun, the capital was in ruins, and not long after the power plant shuttered to a stop. Bodies were everywhere and the infected had dominion.
Ainsley never considered herself a survivor—she was adaptable, intelligent and fairly level headed, but she’d never considered her mentality when everything had gone belly up and the world was at its end.
She and Jason went inland—away from the larger cities, away from the coast. Living in the quiet, sleeping in shifts—they avoided other survivors, having seen the desperation mounting with each passing day.
She's a surgeon, whose hands won't stop shaking.
“People aren’t people after a while,” Jason says one night, they huddle together because they never make a fire—it would draw unwanted attention. She shivers and mumbles a vague question. “Nothing to do with this—ass-backwards infection. Society is for people,” he exhales, his chin resting on her hair, “Survival is for beasts.”
Ainsley isn’t sure she’s capable of being a beast.
Maybe. Maybe not.