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It all started eleven years ago. I was only eight when the Sickness came. No one is sure how it started, only that it killed everyone it came in contact with. No one was spared: not the rich or the poor, not the famous or the commoner, not the politician or the mail man. Death became so vast that people stopped disposing of the bodies because there was too many and no one to bury them.
In a desperate attempt to preserve the human species the American government gathered together and built the Network Arena in the least Infected area of the United States and began to hunt for survivors who weren’t Sick yet. By then I was eleven and orphaned, living off of the land and the forest that surrounded my home. I still don’t know how they even found me, but they came and made sure I wasn’t Sick before taking me away to the Arena where I was given a new home and instantly became highly prized. Out of the five thousand that were saved only seventy-eight were children. We were the last hope for America to continue in some form or fashion.
We were assigned to ‘partners’. Only two people lived in each apartment and we were all given a job. There were doctors, farmers, teachers, scientists, botanists, and every other calling needed to run a successful establishment. For the first few years we all were required to wear full body suits anywhere outside of our personal room and apartment, just to make sure that the Sickness hadn’t somehow crept in. We finally got to take them off by the time I was fourteen. I was ecstatic to finally stuff the stupid thing in the back of my closet, but the others, especially the adults, were not.
The world had to keep moving on. We had to keep building, especially with the odds against us. But people were afraid of mingling, of other people, in case they would get Sick. People wouldn’t report to their posts and the Arena began to fall apart. That’s when the Network came into creation and six years after moving here it became a reality. We run our entire world, talk to everyone, survive without even leaving the comfort of our apartment, with it. We place a helmet on that is attached to the monitors and we control the factories making our clothes, the robots who tend to the animals, and the machines who clean the Arena. We even have online shopping malls where you actually can believe you are in a real live store. You can almost forget that that world is only a cyber one.
By the time I was seventeen, my new ‘mother’ retreated to the Network and hid there…along with everyone else. I tried it, but I missed real people. I missed talking to a person face to face. I missed seeing a smile. I missed hearing laughter- not those stupid ‘LOL’s. I wanted to be with a human not some watered down version looking at me though a screen.
That’s when I started to roam. I started walking along the hallways of the Arena, watching the robots as they swept the floors, washed the windows, delivered the supplies to each apartment each week-all of who were controlled by a human locked away in their room somewhere. Then I went into the courtyard where the pool was, sparkling clear but not a single soul in sight. I sat in the bleachers at the baseball field, but no one was playing. I walked the bike trail. I went inside of the mall. I played a game of pool at the pub. I read a book at the library. I drove an abandoned go-kart on the road. And then…I found the Exit.
Right now I am staring at it. It has been three months since I first found it. The first day I ran from it. Ran as fast as I could back to my apartment and jumped into a hot shower, ripping my clothes off and scrubbing myself so hard that I scraped off the top lair of dead skin completely and had the water up as high as it would run and so hot it scalded me. The entire time I was in there all I could think of was my parents as they died, how their bodies began to thrash into strange positions, their strangled screams, the blood that poured from their ears and noses and mouths, and most of all their eyes… the look in them in the last few moments before death as they realized they was no hope for them. I’m not sure how long I stood under the water before I stumbled out and pulled on a pair of clean clothes. I’m not sure how I had broken the vase in the hallway or knocked the rocking chair over in my haste to get to the bathroom to wash the imaginary germs off of me….what I’m most unsure about is how my ‘mother’ didn’t even hear me. How she didn’t notice me crashing through the apartment and the strangled cries I made as I could see my parents re-die inside of my head.
I don’t know why I am here again…maybe for answers or maybe to remember my past life. It had been a good one, a happy one. One where my mother’s arms were always open for me to fall into. One where my father rustles my hair. One where there was someone to notice when I needed a haircut. One where people knew I hated yogurt but loved Jell-O.
I run my hand through my too-long locks and then stuff both hands back into my pockets. The Exit is large, made of solid metal with no handles. Even if I wanted to get out I don’t think it is possible. I am locked here. Trapped under the glass sunroof and encircled by ten foot thick Walls with only one Exit. The very creation made to save me will be my tomb. The very thing made to preserve humanity will destroy it.
I slowly place my palm on the door, jerking it back only once before gently settling on it. The cold metal pierces my skin and makes my heart pound within my chest. It is like an electric shock. Like someone has awoken me. I press my palm harder into it. My breath kicks up a notch and my pulse becomes thundering in my ears. I am not sure if I am scared or excited but I really don’t care, it has been long since I really felt something. Whatever emotion is raging inside me is making me feel alive, something I haven’t felt for two years.
I smile. I can’t help it. I think I even laugh. The first sound I have made since the last time I was here. And it feels wonderful. I slap the door and laugh again, this time louder and it echoes around me. I listen to myself, the way my voice sounds horse from the lack of use and the occasional snort. The noise is so nice that I can’t help but wonder how in the world we had given this up.
“What’s so funny?”
I abruptly stop and turn on my heels to look behind me. A girl with half-curled half-straight brown hair stares at me with a bemused expression. My mouth is hanging open and my eyes are staring disbelievingly at her. She is the first human I have seen in over a year besides my ‘mother’. Is she even real or just a hologram or have I caught the Sickness and am hallucinating?
“Are…you impaired?” she asks concerned. Her voice rings out smoothly and her body is lean and fit, unlike most who spend most of their days in front of their Network all day and have turned fat and weak.
“My…”I swallow, trying to get the roughness out of my voice, “my discovery is what is funny… In a sad way.”
“What did you discover?” she looks at me, meeting my eyes. My ‘mother’ never does that anymore, hasn’t been able to for twenty months now.
“That…we are alive but…humanity is dying. It is…eroding away because people are only communicating with keyboards and screens. That they saved the people but not the persons.” My words sound forced. It feels strange and good at the same time to have a conversation vocally. My ‘mother’ and I hadn’t spoken in fifteen months. She was afraid talking to me would make her Infected. She thought that the air moving from my lips would kill her.
The girl cocks her head and we study each other. I read her body language. There are hard lines in her face, clearly showing the trials she has endured. Her eyes, silvery grey with a thin rim of gold to wrap around her pupil, say nothing gets past her. The way there are scars running up her arms and legs tell that she is a fighter, a survivor. The way she has her hands on her hips, states that she won’t take any crap. The way she bores into me tells me she sees the same things in me.
“I’m Alex.” She steps forward and extends her hand. I stare at it, wondering when the last time was that I made physical contact with someone- especially someone’s hands.
My gaze flickers up to her eyes and I read the challenge there. Daring me to accept her. To let her in, like everyone has forgotten how to. Once again I see my parents- the images in my mind so strong I have to remind myself that they aren’t really here. I see them laughing, holding hands, kissing me goodnight, giving me a piggyback ride , spinning me around, embracing each other- living not existing. Just like we are supposed to. Just like we’ve forgotten how to.
I clasp her hand and feel the pleasant warmth rippling off of her skin. I feel a shimmer run up my arm and I smile again, enjoying the rush of adrenaline that runs through my veins. “I’m Chance.”