Emma was getting ready for work. From her wardrobe she selected a black tank top, a black lace pullover, and black skinny jeans. She brushed her long hair, tied it up into a high ponytail, curled the ends with a flat iron, and applied thick strokes of eyeliner at her lashline.
“Are you done with the bathroom?” came a tinny voice from the other side of the door. Emma rolled her eyes at herself in the mirror and yanked the flat iron plug out of the outlet.
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied. She swung the door open, nearly hitting herself. The bathroom was so tiny that one had to edge past the door into the room to close it. “Just getting ready for work.” A tinge of annoyance bordered her words.
“I was just asking,” snapped her roommate, Zoey. “You’re not the only one who has to go somewhere.”
“All yours,” Emma said, stepping out brusquely. “Good luck getting to the Slut Awards.”
Zoey brushed past Emma and closed the bathroom door behind her. The other roommate, Morgan, walked past them towards the kitchen to make dinner. Her jaw dropped when she heard Emma’s comments.
“Did you hear what she said?” Zoey yelled at Morgan from beyond the bathroom door. “I don’t know why she says things like that!”
Morgan looked at Emma and shrugged. “I don’t want to get involved.” She went to the fridge and pulled out a half-empty jar of pasta sauce.
Emma shook her head. She grabbed her black walking shoes, noting the worn down heels. Time to get new ones, she thought to herself gloomily, while taking mental note of expenses this month. Pulling on the shoes and her black peacoat, she waved wordlessly at Morgan and slammed the door behind her.
It was a brisk walk to the bus stop, with the wind howling about her and whipping her ponytail around her face. Newspapers and little bits of debris kicked up around her ankles as she walked. The smell of dog urine hit her square in the face at one corner.
While she waited at the bus stop with other equally glum passengers, she recalled how her life had turned for the worse the last few years.
The bus arrived in a gust of dirty air. She filed onto the bus and stared out the window, watching as an elderly woman in a wheelchair was lifted onto the platform.
A burly man sat down beside her, awakening her from her day dream. He grinned at her, showing yellowing teeth. He was sitting too close.
“Hi beautiful,” he said. She looked at him and turned towards the window.
“Not in a mood to talk, huh.” He turned his head to face the window as well.
Uncomfortable, she began to edge away. Finally, the bus stopped and she leapt up from her seat and bounded down the steps.
“Have a good day!” she heard from behind her. She practically could feel his gross yellow smile.
She walked the rest of the way to her workplace, only five blocks away. She brushed off the earlier encounter and steeled herself – it was Friday night and it was only going to get worse.
The lounge was practically empty, with only a couple of stragglers finishing up their dinner. She walked to the back, ignoring the stares, and headed straight for the back of the bar.
The lounge was busy that night. Emma never stopped moving, swooping in between the bar and the other bartenders. There were endless shots bought for her – Emma simply poured herself some water or juice to match the customer’s preference.
At around two, her boss signaled that it was time for her shift to end. The night was beginning to slow down, even though the music kept pumping through her system.
Another bartender had come in to take over her shift. He would most likely work until the early morning.
“Hi, pretty lady,” he said, flashing her a perfect smile. His black tee showed off thick biceps and a thin waist. Emma drank him in.
“Hi, Omar,” she replied, smiling. Her night had instantly perked up. “How are ya?”
“Not bad. Seems like you got the good part of the night.” He winked.
Emma surveyed the lounge. Most of the people had coupled off and left. There were only a few all-girl parties (probably bachelorette) and some desperate guys looking for action. The floor was suitably sticky from all the spilled mojitos.
“Looks like.” She tried to play it cool, which was incredibly difficult around him. “Anyway, I’m done. Gonna head home.”
“’Kay. Stay safe out there.”
Emma untied the black apron around her waist and hung it up in the break room. She grabbed her coat and bag, adjusted her hair in the mirror, and quickly walked out of the lounge. It had been a long night and all she wanted to do was sleep.
The next day began at 11AM. Her phone buzzed next to her ear, where it had been charging. Moaning, Emma rolled over and grabbed it, looking at it with one eye open.
Erica. She swiped her finger over the screen. “Hello?”
“What do you want?” Emma asked groggily.
“Still doing brunch today at noon? It was your idea.”
“Well, hurry up. It’s 11 already.”
“I knew you’d still be sleeping.”
“Shut up.” Emma couldn’t help but smile. “See you there.”
She slid out of bed, and grabbed a light blue sweater tunic and black leggings. Throwing these on, she headed to the bathroom.
The bathroom stunk like vomit. “Oh, gross!” Emma cried, sidestepping spots on the floor. “Zoey!”
A very hung over Zoey floated through the kitchen like a ghost. “What?”
“I have to get going! You have to clean this up right now.”
“Okay,” Zoey mumbled, looking on the verge of death. She gripped the sides of her head. “Oh god, what a night.”
“Don’t wanna hear about it. I’m going to be late.” Emma grabbed her toothbrush and went to her room to get ready.
She pulled on brown ankle boots, slung her purse around her arm, and went out the door, making sure that it wouldn’t slam shut behind her.
“I haven’t seen you in forever,” Erica said over plates of huevo rancheros and pancakes. They were sitting on a picturesque waterfront in Chelsea. Erica was a petite little thing, with a mass of dark brown curls and bright eyes. Emma often felt like a giant next to her.
“Yeah, I can’t remember the last time I had brunch either.” Emma had decided to splurge on a pitcher of mimosas. She felt entitled after the unpleasant start to the morning.
It was a lazy sort of morning and the conversation went that way as well. Emma told her about Zoey, about Omar, while Erica shared her tales of working as a low-level administrator at an advertising agency.
Two hours and one pitcher of mimosa later, Emma finally felt relaxed enough to head home.
“How are you getting home?” Erica asked.
“The L train, then bus.”
“2 and 1 train for me. Okay then. Get home safe.” Erica hugged her.
Emma had just gotten on the train when two police officers stepped on and ordered everyone off.
An announcement was made over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, all train services have been suspended until further notice. Please exit the trains. There are shuttle services available aboveground to take you to your destination.”
“You heard that!” said one of the police officers. He pointed towards the doors. “Everyone off!”
“What’s going on, officer?” Emma asked.
“We don’t have that information yet. Can’t say.” He lifted his head to yell at the rest of the passengers. “Everyone needs to proceed to the emergency shuttle service. There will be buses to take you along this route.”
Everyone filed off the train, some more willingly than others. “Stupid L train!” muttered Emma to herself.
It was a long commute home. Her phone rang a couple times, both from Zoey. Emma was already in a foul mood so she hit the angry red X on the screen.
When she finally got home, she found Zoey and Morgan standing in the living room around the TV.
“Where have you been?” demanded Zoey. She looked much better than this morning and smelt distinctly of lemon cleaning product and soap.
“I had brunch with Erica. It took me an hour to get home from Chelsea! They shut down the L train so I had to take two buses.” Emma went behind the curtain that separated her ‘bedroom’ from the rest of the living room. She stripped off her blue sweater and threw on a large over-sized white tee.
“Well, there was a biological attack at 28th and 1st!” Morgan said in a strained voice.
“What?” Emma flung open the curtain and went to join her roommates around the TV.
“Yeah, they’re saying that its infected a bunch of people already,” Zoey said. She looked grim. “That’s why they shut down the trains.”
“What do we do now?” Morgan asked. Her eyes were wide as saucers and her blonde hair looked frazzled.
“The mayor is urging people to stay in their homes,” the news anchor said, as if in reply to Morgan. The roommates looked at each other.
“I guess that’s what we do,” Emma said, flopping down on the couch. She looked at her phone and checked Facebook and Twitter.
What’s going on?? Couldn’t get home today. Staying at the boyfriend’s.
Praying for all the people affected at NYU Langone!
Just saw this sketchy looking guy on the street! He tried to bite me.. WTF!
“This is weird,” Emma said to Zoey and Morgan, pointing at the last update from a friend.
“What’s that?” Zoey asked, crowding Emma. “BITING?”
“Guys.. you have to see this,” Morgan said, pointing at the TV.
There was shaky cell phone footage, taken at Times Square.
“Ugh I hate it when people film vertically,” Emma grumbled.
“Shh.” Morgan turned up the volume.
“In this cell phone footage sent to us, you can see the effects of this biological agent.”
A man at the center of the footage was lurching unsteadily, swinging his arms about. He appeared to be homeless. The footage paused.
“Now, take a look at what he does to this bystander. Warning: This may be disturbing to some viewers.”
The man lunged towards a woman who was pointing at him. He grabbed her arm and bit down on her hand. The footage suddenly became very shaky and the owner of the cell phone appeared to be running away from the scene.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” Emma leapt up off the couch. Morgan shrieked.
“Oh, please don’t tell me it’s more of those bath salt drugs,” Zoey said in a quaking voice.
“NYPD police commissioner will issue an official statement in five minutes regarding these events.”
Emma walked to the kitchen, open the fridge, and cracked open three beers. She handed them wordlessly to Zoey and Morgan, who both took deep gulps.
Morgan set down her beer and flipped channels. Each channel showed the same terrifying footage. Finally, the NYPD police commissioner came on the screen.
“Guys!” Morgan said, waving Emma and Zoey towards the screen.
“…we have reason to believe that this may be a terrorist attack…”
“Oh my god!” Zoey said. Her eyes darted at Emma in a panic. Emma knew that Zoey had been in New York during 9/11.
“…I am urging you to stay in your homes until we deem it safe to go outside. If you have nowhere to go, we are opening up all homeless shelters to provide emergency first aid care. In the meantime, we will continue to let the public know about developments as we learn about the situation…”
Emma stood up and went to the kitchen to take stock of their food. She cleared out the sink and began filling it with water. “Morgan!” she barked. “Go to the bathroom and fill the tub.”
“We don’t know if we’re going to need it,” said Emma.
“Just do what she says, Morgan,” said Zoey, still sitting cross legged on the ground in front of the TV.
Emma opened the drawer beside the sink and counted the number of emergency candles. “Twelve.”
“…the virus is spread through blood contact. Symptoms include hyper aggression, stiffness, nausea, and in severe cases, decaying flesh. If you or a loved one has been bitten within the last 24 hours, immediately quarantine that person…”
“So what is this? A zombie virus?” asked Zoey.
“…talking about establishing martial law in parts of Brooklyn to contain…”
“Don’t say that!” Morgan said. She had returned from filling the bathtub.
“…military base in Long Island…”
“What do we do now?” Morgan asked.
“Stay inside, I guess,” Zoey answered.
Two days had passed. Emma was bored to death. She read a novel that she had been putting off, only occasionally going out into the living room to check on her roommates. She also avoided Facebook, tired of all the updates that were almost invariably the same panicked exclamations of “I’m leaving New York!”
Zoey was obsessively watching TV and once in a while came into either Morgan’s or Emma’s room to make announcements of what she had learned from TV.
“They said Times Square is completely overrun! Elmo turned into a zombie!” which elicited more giggles than it should have.
“The military base in Long Island might be the new headquarters for the mayor! They’re airlifting him out of Manhattan!”
“People are fleeing uptown. There are huge traffic jams on all bridges!”
“ERs are packed! There are too many patients.”
“They’re deploying the National Guard!”
After a while, Emma tuned out Zoey whenever she came into her room.
The three roommates did not venture out at all, shaken by the cell phone footage on TV. Food was also beginning to run low, since Emma and Morgan hadn’t gone grocery shopping that week. The only sounds from outside for the last two days were endless sirens moving up and down the area.
On the second day, Emma and Zoey were staring out the window, watching what appeared to be a college student venturing out the front door of their apartment building. It was a boy of probably no more than 20 years old, wearing the dark purple of NYU.
“Do you know who that is?” Emma asked. Zoey shook her head. “Must have just moved in.”
He darted around the corner and disappeared from sight, reemerging a few minutes later with a small grey plastic bag of what looked like canned food.
“Oooh, he’s got food,” breathed Zoey. Her stomach rumbled.
They both watched eagerly as he made his way back to the apartment. “Maybe we can borrow some in exchange for sex!” Zoey said jokingly. Emma shook her head, unappreciative of the crude humor.
“Fine.” Zoey fell silent, watching this little boy walk along the sidewalk.
Suddenly there was a loud pop pop pop! Emma and Zoey both jumped. The boy slumped the ground. His plastic bag ripped open and cans of food rolled in all directions.
“What was that?” Morgan said loudly, loping to the window.
“Shh!” Emma and Zoey said. They dropped the ground, dragging Morgan down with them. With only their eyes and fingers over the windowsill, they saw two armed guards wearing helmets rush forward towards the body of the boy. Both of them carried rifles. One of them bent over and examined the body on the ground. The other spoke into the radio on his shoulder.
“National Guard,” Morgan murmured.
“They have radios!” hissed Zoey.
It was another few minutes before the gurney arrived, but it seemed like hours. The two guards stood around the boy, keeping watch, until two military paramedics arrived, sirens blaring. The inside of their apartment glowed blue and red alternatively.
They lifted the boy onto the gurney and slipped him into a black body bag. The two guards had collected the cans of food and placed them on top of the body bag, which was then wheeled into the ambulance.
“Oh my god,” Zoey said. “They took the food!”
“Should we go out there?” Morgan asked.
“No!” Emma responded quickly. “I think they’re going to shoot first, ask later.”
“Why are they doing this?” Morgan wailed, tears in her eyes.
“Shh.” Zoey flapped her hands at her. She pointed out the window. The two guards remained in front of their apartment building, looking up at the windows.
“What are they doing?”
“I think they’re trying to figure out how many people live here,” Emma whispered.
The two guards walked the length of the apartment exterior, then followed after the paramedics.
On the third day, Emma changed out of her pajamas for the first time in a while and tucked her wallet into her jean pocket. They hadn’t heard any sirens since yesterday and it was deathly quiet.
“Where are you going?” Zoey beseeched. “You can’t go out there!”
“We’re almost out of food, Zoey.” Emma pulled on her boots and sweatshirt. “I have to go out there. There might not be anything left if I don’t. I’m just going down to the bodega.”
“What about the National Guard?”
“Zoey. I know you’re hungry. I’m hungry. Morgan’s hungry. We need to do something.” Emma was on the verge of angry tears.
“Okay.” Zoey relented. “Be quick. Keep an eye out.” She turned back to the TV and continued clicking through channels. It seemed to be showing the same footage over and over again.
Emma breathed in the air outside. Even though it was a little stale, it was nice to go out. She looked around for signs of the guards that she saw yesterday, but noticed nothing. It was strangely quiet and the streets were empty. Probably staying indoors, she thought as she walked down the crumbling steps to her apartment building. There was a small splatter of blood where the student had fallen. She side stepped it.
It was a short two-minute walk to the bodega on the corner. The store was open, the lights were on, but it was empty. She stuck her head in the door and took a quick look around. No one.
She grabbed a red basket from the counter and began filling it with protein bars and packets of dried food. The aisles were virtually untouched. She looked at the fridge and saw a giant quart of Ben and Jerry’s. Why not? she thought, putting that in the basket as well. It’s the end of the world.
Her basket was nearly full when she heard a groaning noise. She placed the basket on the ground.
“…hello?” she called out. Only more groans answered her. Emma looked around and picked up the heaviest object she could find – a butternut squash.
“Hello?” she called out again, more boldly. “Who’s there? Don’t shoot, I’m unarmed.” Or at least, armed with a squash. Her hands shook. What if she was attacked? No one would come to help her.
It was a tense minute as the shuffling and groaning noises came closer.
A gruesome, bloated face appeared behind packets of pasta sauce and instant noodles. Emma yelled and jumped back. It was the bodega owner.
“Mister, I don’t want to hurt you!” she cried as he lumbered around the shelves and placed himself between her and the exit. He was slobbering and lunging towards her with his arms outstretched. “I really don’t want to hurt you!” she repeated over and over, remembering the footage from TV. She threw the butternut squash at him, which only cracked open ineffectually against the side of his head. Golden yellow pulp flew everywhere. The man continued to lumber forward, unaffected.
Emma darted around the aisles towards the back, where she knew there was a small hardware section. She grabbed the biggest tool – a monkey wrench – and held it in front of her.
When he was almost within arms reach, she swung the monkey wrench as hard as she could, bringing it down on top of his upper arm. There was a loud crack and splinters of bone came out. Emma gagged. And yet he still shuffled forward.
“Okay, here goes!” she said to herself. She lifted the monkey wrench high above her. One of his hands found her elbow. She wriggled it free, backed up, and brought the wrench down as hard as she could on top of his skull.
Down he went. He lay on the floor, jaw still working. Double tap. She swung the wrench down again onto his head. His arms stiffened and then stopped moving.
Emma felt sick. Her heart was pounding so fast she could barely breathe. Her arms were tingling from exertion. Her stomach was rolling. Still holding the wrench, she grabbed the basket with her other hand and walked as fast as she could home. In the distance, she heard a slow, deep rumble and then several blasts in succession.
Stopping on the sidewalk, she looked up and saw several blue and orange clouds erupting from along the waterfront. They roiled and sputtered upwards. Oh shit! she thought in a panic. She ran home. Ahead of her, she saw the shadows of fighter jets.
“Zoey! Morgan!” she cried out as soon as she got home.
“I know,” Zoey said softly. “The TV’s out. There’s no power.”