Radio Silence - Part 4
a post apocalyptic story
“So why don’t you want to go to your family in Milwaukee?” Joe asked, to fill the silence in the car.
“Missouri,” Melanie corrected. “Well, for one thing, I can’t really get there very easily since they’ve stopped all the planes. Unless I want to do something stupid like hitchhike.”
Which you’re kind of doing right now, Joe thought, before realizing what she had just said. He nearly stopped, right in the middle of the road, not that it would have made that much difference, seeing how few cars were out anyway. “What? What do you mean they’ve stopped planes?”
Melanie looked at him sideways from the passenger seat. “You haven’t heard? They’ve cancelled all flights. The country is in some kind of lock down mode, or something, I don’t know what they’re calling it. But they think if people can’t fly, it’ll stop the spread of the zombie apocalypse or something.”
“Zombie?” Joe felt the colour drain from his face and his body turned to a pin cushion of prickling dread.
“Don’t freak out,” Melanie said. “I’m just kidding about the zombie apocalypse.” She waved a hand in his direction in a ‘calm yourself’ gesture. “I mean, I don’t think anyone is coming back from the dead anyway. I haven’t seen my parents again since I buried them and that was a couple days ago now. If it was the zombie apocalypse, wouldn’t they kind of come back to life right away?” She stopped, looking thoughtful. “Anyway I read online that people can’t actually come back to life after dying. I mean like really, really dying, not just dying temporarily in hospital during an operation and then being brought back to life by the surgeons kind of thing. Y’know what I mean?” She turned to him, waiting for a reply.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” His voice sounded hollow and flat. As if he’d become a zombie himself and all life had been drained out of him. “I don’t know why you wanted to come with me anyway,” he said turning into the station parking lot. There were still no cars, so he did something he’d never done before, he parked right next to the doors, parallel to them, so that he straddled all four parking spots. There might be some perks to the zombie apocalypse, Joe thought wryly.
“You’re right, it is really creepy in here,” Melanie said, running her hands over the dials and switches. She moved a sliding button upwards and then down.
Joe slapped her hand away. “Don’t touch anything!” he said sternly, moving the slider up to the setting it had been at.
Melanie raised her hands. “Okay, okay! It’s not as if there’s probably many people listening anyway,” she said.
“You were,” he countered.
“Okay, yeah, but…” she gestured vaguely in the air. “You saw how many cars were on the road. Barely any.”
“That’s probably just because people are scared, and staying inside. Like the news told us to do,” he said, giving Melanie a look that said both of them had broken that rule.
“It’s probably because of all the cars stopped all over the place on the roads, blocking off streets and things.” Melanie corrected. They’d seen just such a log jam of stopped and stalled cars on the way to the station. Joe had to drive around a cluster of cars that was jutting out into an intersection.
“I guess the tow truck people are going to be busy,” Joe said.
“If there’s any left,” Melanie said, garnering a harsh look from Joe.
“There’s lots of people still around,” he said adamantly. She looked at him askance.
“There is,” he said. “My girlfriend is okay.”
“And where is she?” Melanie asked, raising a sculpted eyebrow.
“I don’t even know where Jordan is,” Melanie said. “Somewhere in the middle east or something, right?”
Joe tapped his nose. “Exactly.”
“Huh. What’s your girlfriend doing there?”
“She’s an archaeologist,” he replied and then held up hand for silence. He flicked the On Air switch and spoke. “Anybody out there that might still be listening, I apologize for…just the music and nothing else. We’re short staffed. If you can call just one person staff,” he added with a chuckle.
“Don’t be silly, uh…” Melanie started and then paused with a confused look. She leaned close to him. “What’s your name?” she whispered.
“Joe, don’t be silly, there’s not just you,” she said, trying to sound bright and cheery and glaring at him.
He looked at her quizzically. “Anyways, the point is, there’s still not going to be any radio hosts, just so you’re aware.” He paused, searching for something else to say. “Well, hope you’re all doing okay, if you’re listening to this. If you have any requests,” he laughed again, “give us a call. Listeners know our number, 1-822-SING.” He added as an afterthought, “Oh … and have a good day.” He flicked the switch again and turned it off.
“Why did you say that?” Joe said, turning to Melanie who was sitting down in a chair and spinning in circles. She had her cell phone out and was typing into it.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked.
“I’m reading the news. I want to see if they’ve learned anything more about the illness. Maybe if there are any other people like us or something.”
Melanie was about to respond when the phone rang, making both of them jump. They looked at each other. He pressed the button lighting up on the switchboard marking the call. “Hello?” he asked uncertainly.
“Hello?” a man on the other end said, equally uncertain.
“Yes? Would you…like to make a request?” Joe knew that sounded a bit ridiculous considering the circumstances.
“Oh, you’re actually there! I thought it might have been some kind of pre-recorded thing,” the man said. “You’re okay too? You’re not sick either?”
Joe glanced at Melanie who shrugged at him. “Yes, I’m not sick-” Melanie kicked his chair and he added, “we’re not sick either. At least we don’t think so.”
“We? How many are you?” The man sounded hopeful.
“Two. There’s just two of us here.”
“Oh,” the man’s voice dropped, clearly disappointed. “Well, I guess that’s better than nothing.”
And in the pause in the conversation the music stopped. The playlist that he had set earlier had run its course. The room was silent. It was even stranger being in a silent radio station than it was being in an empty one, Joe realized.
“Um, why are you calling?” Melanie asked, her phone limp in her hand.
“Because I know why all this is happening,” the man said.
Joe’s bullshit detector started to go off. “So why are you calling us? Why aren’t you calling the news stations and telling them?”
“Don’t you think I already tried that?” the man sounded annoyed, on the verge of anger. “Of course I did. But they didn’t want to listen to me. Too many other people had called in with crazy conspiracy theories and ideas that by the time I called, it was like crying wolf, and they didn’t even put me through to anyone.” He sounded irritated and as if he was about to start crying.
“What about going to the hospitals?” Joe suggested.
“Tried that too,” the voice on the other end admitted. “They turn away anyone who isn’t sick or showing symptoms of the sickness. They’re at their wits end there. It’s a total gong show. And last time I was there, there was even less staff that I could see than the first time I went.” The man sighed.
“So what’s causing the sickness then?” Joe asked, his curiosity piqued. Melanie scooted her rolling chair closer to the desk so she could hear better.
“The government’s don’t want anyone to know, but it’s the environment that’s making everyone sick.”
Okay, Joe thought. This guy is crazy after all, great. “The environment,” Joe said slowly.
“Well, kind of,” the man continued.
Next to him, Melanie spun her finger in a circle next to her head, the universal gesture for ‘this man is nuts’. Joe nodded his agreement.
“Who are you anyway? Why should we trust what you’re saying?” Joe said. “And what do you mean ‘kind of’?”
“My name is Frank Alsop. I don’t expect you to believe me, but it would be nice if you did. I wasn’t one of the people who was working directly on the compound, but I did work for the government in the general program that was developing it. I was really just a number cruncher. A guy sitting in front of a computer the whole day, not someone in a lab coat working with vials and things like some kind of story book scientist or something you’d see on all those ridiculous crime dramas.” Frank laughed.
“Okay, so you’re one of the people in the know,” Joe said. “Tell us what you know.”
Melanie and Joe heard a loud intake of breath. “Okay. Here’s the basics. All the chemicals and pollution that have been pumped into the atmosphere for the last…” the man paused, “two hundred and fifty years or so. Well, the government was testing something. Something to try and patch up the hole in the ozone layer.” The man paused. “You remember that, right? They were really big on that in the Eighties, making us feel guilty but that we couldn’t really do anything about? Well they’ve been creating a compound that they were hoping would act as a big cosmic band aid that they could patch up to fill in the hole, and help heal our atmosphere.”
“Really?” Melanie said, this time she was the one sounding disbelieving. “Because my mom is a-,” she stopped, her voice becoming tight. She swallowed, cleared her throat, “was a meterologist. And she never told me about anything like this.”
“That’s because it was a secret,” the man said, irritated. “It was a government plan. They were trying to keep it quiet until they actually figured it out, so that they could announce that they’d done it, created a giant atmospheric band-aid.”
“Well, they obviously didn’t,” Melanie said impatiently. “So what happened?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Frank admitted. “But somehow the compound they were working on…escaped.”
“Escaped?” Joe and Melanie repeated, shocked.
“Somehow it accidentally was released and…it wasn’t ready. And I’m no weather scientist but, whatever happened, it combined with other things in the atmosphere, the pollutants and…a monster was created.”
“Monster?” echoed Joe. He felt silly uttering these single words in reply but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Well, not a literal monster like-”
“Like zombies?” Melanie offered helpfully with a brief smile at Joe.
“Yeah, not like zombies. More like an environmental monster. Have you noticed it is getting colder?” the man asked expectantly.
“Uh, yeah,” Joe said. “Maybe because winter is coming?”
Frank laughed, a tinny sound on the phone coming through the microphone. “True. It is. But it’s colder than normal. What do you think that means?”
Melanie leaned forward excitedly to speak into the microphone that was the phone speaker. “A nuclear winter!” she said as if she had just got the answer correct on a game show.
“Bingo!” Frank said. “You win a gold star, lady.”
Melanie grinned, and then the smile fell away when she realized what she was smiling about.
“Wait, so why are people dying, then?” Joe asked, confused. Science was never his strong point. “Because it’s getting colder?”
“No silly,” Melanie said, swatting at him again as if he’d just told an inappropriate joke. “It’s because whatever the government accidentally leaked into the atmosphere has mixed with whatever else is currently in the air, all the junk we’ve put up there since the Industrial Revolution, it’s made a lethal cocktail. And, in a way, it worked to patch up the hole in the ozone, if I’m correct?”
“Another gold star to the lady.”
“But it’s also blocked the sun from reaching the earth,” Melanie finished.
“That doesn’t sound good at all.” Joe admitted.
“It isn’t,” Melanie and the stranger on the phone said at the same time.
“And the particles in the atmosphere seem to be causing the sickness. People are breathing it in without knowing it. And then they get sick and…” Frank trailed off, not needing to finish. Joe and Melanie were all too aware of what happened once people got sick.
“But it’s been a few days already,” Joe began.
“Wrong,” the man said suddenly. It’s been a couple of weeks since the compound was leaked into the air but it took awhile for everything to mix together. Like a recipe if you think about it. And only once all the ingredients were mixed together, did they become like a sealant around the entire planet. Like a shield against the sun.”
“And then you get winter…” Joe started to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“And people’s bodies stopping because they’re being compromised by the crap in the air,” Melanie finished.
“So why aren’t the people you work with trying to stop this…chemical winter?” Joe wondered.
“They were. Of course they were. As soon as they realized what had happened, they tried to get up there to scrub the atmosphere.”
“Scrub the…? What?” Joe asked, now regretting he ever asked.
Melanie shook her head at him. “Don’t worry about it. I know what he’s talking about.”
“Gee, that’s great,” Joe said, laden with sarcasm. “Well what happened? Why didn’t they?”
“Do you really need to ask that?” Frank said. “You know the answer.”
Joe nodded silently, picturing the plot of grass at the opposite end of his townhouse complex where Melanie’s parents lay.
“The big question Mr. Scientist or whatever you are,” Joe said, leaning forward into the microphone almost protectively. “Why are we still okay? You’re not sick, either, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m also not a doctor, so I don’t know why we’re not sick when so many others are.”
“Seems like the doctors don’t know much either,” said Joe.
“Well, you’ve told us what you think is the cause of all this sickness,” Melanie said, changing topics. “What do you want us to do about it?”
“Maybe broadcast it? Get the message out?” Frank said, somewhat helplessly.
“And create mass panic?” Joe said. “No. If we told people what’s happening, without a solution, without some kind of plan of action, to try and solve it…it would only lead to frightening people, unnecessarily.”
“Aren’t people already frightened?” Melanie asked.
“But at least they have some kind of hope. False hope. They just think it’s some kind of normal illness. I mean, an epidemic, a plague, but still, not that there’s nothing that can be done…”
“You’re right,” Frank said despondently. “Of course. I just thought. I heard you on the radio. I’ve been searching for people.”
“Where are you?” Joe asked.
“South Seattle. I haven’t seen anyone here for a week. Alive that is. And…I can’t drive anywhere. The roads are all filled with cars. So, I’m stuck here. Where are you?” Frank sounded a bit more hopeful.
“Not far from you. We could…” Joe paused, wondering if what he was about to say was craziness, but he continued anyway. He already had Melanie with him, he reasoned. “We could, try and meet up with you…or something,” he mumbled. Why was he saying this? This wasn’t like him. He should just go back home and… and what? Be by himself? Sit on his ass and just watch the news over and over again and eat all the food in the cupboard?
Melanie squealed and clapped her hands together. “Great!”
“It would be nice to be with some other people,” Frank admitted. I’ve been sitting in my apartment going stir crazy and just eating all my food.”
“Okay, well, do you have a phone number? We’ll need to keep in touch to find each other. And I think I should grab some things from home first, before we head off. This isn’t a normal situation.”
“No, it isn’t,” Frank agreed, giving Joe his phone number. Joe gave his, and Melanie also exchanged hers, just so everyone had each other’s numbers.
“Okay, well it’ll take me about fifteen minutes to drive home, and get some things, and then we’ll try to get as close to you as possible.”
“How about we meet in neutral territory?” Frank suggested. “A coffee shop?”
Joe shrugged and looked at Melanie who gave her own non-committal response. “Sure, whatever.”
“Can we just take a quick detour first?” Melanie said as she grabbed her bag that she’d hung across a chair. Joe wondered if it was melodramatic to look back over his shoulder as they left. “Sure,” Joe said. “We have all the time in the world.”
She turned to look at Joe, for the first time since starting to tell her side of things. “You ever think about if you ever met a genie, and he granted you three wishes, what would you wish for?”
Joe smiled at that, almost sadly. “I can’t say that I ever have,” he said. “But I have to say, if I did, I’d wish for some cigarettes, my own private plane to get me out of here, and a pilot for the plane.”
Melanie looked at him. “You smoke?” she asked, surprised.
“No. Never have. But I just thought to myself, no better time than the end of the world and being one of the last people alive on the planet to take up a bad habit.” He laughed loudly.
Melanie looked thoughtful and then nodded. “I guess that makes sense,” she admitted. “But you don’t need a genie to grant you that wish. I mean the plane you would, but you could go into any convenience store right now and just take a package of cigarettes. No one would stop you…” she trailed off.
“What would you wish for,” Joe tried to change the subject back again. “If a big blue genie showed up right now, in front of us and granted you three wishes, what would you want?” Melanie opened her mouth to speak and Joe interrupted her with a raised hand. “And you can’t ask for unlimited wishes.”
Melanie laughed. “I know! I wasn’t going to do that. Though now that you mention it…” She raised a hand, cupping her chin in the stereotypical ‘thinking’ gesture. Joe growled at her and she laughed again. She felt slightly guilty laughing. It felt strange to laugh now. Strange to show any positive emotion, any happiness now, with how everything was. How could you be happy ever again? She used to wonder when she read stories of tragedy in the paper or heard about them on the news. She wondered how people could move on, to forget, to change. But she was doing the same thing. Joe threw something at her. She squealed and ducked and something small and soft bounced off her shoulder. She went to pick it up. “A rabbit's foot?”
Joe shrugged. “Just one of those tacky souvenirs you get when you’re on vacation. Don’t ask me why. It’s one of those impulse buys.”
“I know the rules.” she said. “The first rule of asking a genie for wishes is to never ask for unlimited wishes. The second rule is you have to be very specific about what you’re wishing for otherwise there could be unanticipated consequences.”
“Wow, you sure know a lot about this,” Joe teased. Melanie wondered if this was what it was like to have an older brother.
Suddenly she turned solemn. “Normally my three wishes would be to find my own place in my favourite place in the world-'' Joe raised an eyebrow and Melanie complied by filling in the blank, “Newport, on the Oregon coast. I’d love to find a small house or cottage, by the water, with an ocean view, so I could wake up every morning and look out at the water with a cup of coffee before…” she trailed off, lost in her daydream.
“Before?” Joe prompted gently.
“Before going off to my job in a law office as an actual paralegal, instead of just an office lackey.”
“What’s the third wish?” Joe prompted.
Melanie shook her head. “No. That was my old life. My old world. They were just ridiculous dreams. Fantasies. They seem stupid now.”
Joe shook his head in reply and put a hand gently on her arm, reassuring. “No, not at all. Those are great wishes. What was the third one?”
“A dog ranch.”
“I would love to adopt a bunch of dogs and get a big farm or something, a field, and just…you know, raise them.”
“A lawyer with twenty dogs?” Joe said with a raised eyebrow and half smile.
Melanie went to slap him. “Don’t mock me! You wanted to hear!”
“Okay, okay!” Joe tried to back away out of the danger zone. Melanie picked up Joe’s rabbit's foot and threw it back at him.
“I’m not mocking you. It’s a good idea.” Melanie gave him a disbelieving look, raising an eyebrow and twisting her mouth sideways.
And then the mood turned sombre again.
“So if that’s your good wishes. From the old world…”
“Since the sickness started, the only thing I’d want is my parents back alive.” Her voice had dropped low, to barely a whisper. “That, and maybe even just a handful of other people. Not many, just a few. Like…” She stopped. “Hmmm. I thought it would be easy. Picking out a few people I’d like to have around again. But you know when you think of people, and then suddenly you think of the little things that kind of annoy you about them? Like I was going to say it’d be nice to see Samantha, the girl I always used to get my coffee from in the morning. She’d know exactly what I wanted to order before I even opened my mouth. And she was really nice and friendly. But she was always too damn perky for so early in the morning. Like without fail, she never seemed to be grumpy or tired like a normal person. It was like she was running on five cups of coffee already at eight in the morning. Her cheeriness began to piss me off, to be honest. It made me cringe. So I was going to say it would be nice to see Sam again, but then again, maybe not. Does that make me a horrible person?” Melanie said suddenly. “I’m not meaning that I’m glad she’s gone, that she’s…dead. It’s just…” She pursed her lips. “I guess it’s kind of nice not to have so many people around. It’s strange to think that I’d be asking for something like that. You know what I do miss though? Cinnamon buns. Fresh cinnamon buns with just a bit of icing drizzled on top. That’s the main reason I loved the place that I went to, y’know? It was the place I made you stop in before we went to meet up with Frank.”
“Is that the place you started crying in?” Joe said, understanding dawning. “That’s why you started crying when you went to the pastry case, when there were just two cinnamon rolls, and both had gone moldy.”
Melanie nodded. “I’ll never be able to have another cinnamon roll again!” she said, her voice breaking, and a tear began to roll down her cheek. Hastily she wiped it away.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said.
Melanie sniffed and looked at him through watery eyes. “You’re sorry that I’ll never have cinnamon rolls again?”
Joe shook his head, stifling a smile. “No. I’m sorry about your parents. That must have been awful.”
Melanie shrugged and sniffed, wiping her nose on the cuff of her sleeve. “It’s okay. It’s all pretty much a blur anyway. It seems like it happened to someone else, not really to me. It’s just so…surreal. Like something you’re seeing on TV instead of that it is actually happening to you. You know?”
“Not really,” Joe said honestly, continuing with a sympathetic smile. “But I could imagine. I mean. I know my mom is dead, but she lives on the other side of the country, I didn’t see her die right in front of me.” He cringed as the words came out of his mouth. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to say it like that. But what I’m saying is is… We’ve all lost people.” He shook his head, chastising himself. “Obviously. Since we’re the only people still around.”
“That we know of,” Melanie offered helpfully. “But the evidence doesn’t look very positive, does it?”
Below: Check out part 1 if you haven't started from the beginning, or the previous part (3) or part 5 to continue the story!
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