Secret of Survival
Earth, China’s Guizhou Province
In the pre-dawn darkness, Jia could hear odd noises. They sounded as if they were coming from the tiny, cramped kitchen. Mama had always hated it, that kitchen, the whole house for that matter, and Jia was surprised that she hadn’t wanted to move to Auntie’s after she passed. Cheng had told them both that they could have it, and Jia couldn’t understand why they had stayed in their tiny house. Cheng’s house had been nearly twice as big, something that Xiao Wang had long coveted and envied her younger sister for having.
Jia had asked Mama and received no genuine answer. The older woman had simply muttered about spirits and continued stuffing her face with greasy Chow Fun. She had welcomed no further discussion on the matter.
A sound of glass breaking blasted through the quiet, and Jia jumped up. Mama had been acting weird, well, weirder than normal. Jia’s phone lit up as she fumbled for it. It was earlier than she had initially thought, just after three in the morning. What was Mama doing up?
She slipped on her house shoes and reached for the wall to help guide her in the gloom. A light would be too bright, and she was far too tired to have it shining in her eyes. She hadn’t fallen asleep until after one, anyway, what with the craziness that was going on outside and all around them. Her neighbors, people she had seen every day of her life for the past sixteen years, were acting as if possessed. A desperate hunger in their eyes as they devoured anything they could lay their hands on or fit into their mouths. It was like something out of a horror movie.
Seeing their next-door neighbor eating a rat raw, that had been the last straw for both Jia and Xiao. They had closed the doors and windows to the house, preferring the smothering, fetid, greasy air to that of the insanity that was just beyond their walls. Mama had locked the door, then insisted on moving the couch against it.
“Everyone has gone mad,” she muttered and then headed for the kitchen to polish off the Xiao Long Bao that Jia had made for her the day before.
She had doubled the recipe on Mama’s request, and it should have lasted them for days. The large pot had been full to the brim of the tasty dumpling soup, enough to feed a family of five with leftovers. Instead, it had quickly disappeared, the bowls filling the tiny sink and then spilling onto the counter. Jia shook her head at the thought. Mama was eating like the neighbors, like the rest of Guiyang, as if it were a compulsion. Their cupboards were looking bare, and Jia dreaded having to shop later in the morning. She inched her way down the hallway; rustling noises continued to guide her way.
Xiao Wang was seated on the cracked and peeling linoleum floor, the refrigerator door wide open, lighting the small, dingy kitchen in a weak yellow light. The sound of breaking glass had come from the jar of fish sauce on the door. It was now on the floor, shining sharp shards mixed with the dark brown liquid that spread quickly across the floor. Xiao looked up then, her eyes shiny and desperate. Food dribbled down her chin and her hands appeared covered with fish sauce. She paused in mid-lick, her mouth working on processing the salty mess, throat convulsively swallowing.
“I’m so hungry, Jia, so very hungry.”
And with that, she reached into the puddle and pulled out a piece of glass covered in sauce. Jia screamed and ran forward to stop Mama, but she was too late. Into her mouth went the piece of glass. And as blood sprayed from Xiao’s mouth, and Jia looked at the few pieces of glass remaining, she realized with horror that it was far from the first piece her mother had swallowed.
The Road Out
Jia peered out of the window, her stomach rumbling, aching. It had been four days now, and the world around her was silent. Her mother had died there in the kitchen, a pool of blood slowly spreading from her mouth, her eyes sightless and staring. It had been mere minutes after the last piece of glass was consumed.
Xiao’s hands were remarkably strong as Jia had tried to pry a piece of jagged and sharp glass from her hand. Her blood had mingled with her mother’s and she had screamed over and over as Xiao’s body convulsed, her back arcing, the sound of her head slamming against the cracked and dirty floor. It had taken seconds, but each one had felt like an hour.
Jia had sat there, unmoving, overcome by it all, until the sun had risen and Xiao’s blood had congealed, her body cold, rubbery to the touch. Jia had covered Mama with her favorite blanket, fingers shaking, tears dripping in great fat drops.
Outside, the bright morning sun had been at odds with the horrifying sights visible from the smudged glass window in the front door. Jia had kept the curtains drawn, the door locked, and the door blocked with the couch. On the first day after Mama’s death, the door had shaken and cracked under the pounding of feet and hands. The couch in front of it, however, had held it fast and whoever was on the other side eventually gave up and tried another house. This was repeated time and again on the first day, and again on the second. By the third day, as Jia sat in the gloomy living room, her stomach growling with hunger, there had only been one person who had tried to get in. A neighbor, one she knew slightly, a friend of Mama’s. He had scrabbled at the door, called for Xiao and Jia, and cried. She had almost opened the door. She had stood up, grabbed ahold of the couch to hoist it out of the way, when she heard his next words: “I’m just so hungry. So hungry.”
Jia was hungry. But it wasn’t the same as what was happening to the others, and she knew it. Why did the virus not touch her? Before the vidcast had stopped transmitting live, the newsvid anchor had described the virus in excruciating detail. The city outside was in a frenzy of consumption, desperate to put food into their bellies, and finally, anything else, food or otherwise, that could fit inside their mouths.
She had watched numbly as the newsvids showed vids of Guiyang residents eating vegetation, small animals, non-food objects, glass and metal, and even chemicals. It made what Mama had done almost tame. She had sat there hunched in a chair, watching the newsvids until a stark black and white viral contagion symbol, the Chinese and English symbols replaced the broadcasts that instructed everyone to stay inside.
She had stayed. The smell of Mama’s corpse had grown, and the streets had been quiet, eerily so, for over twenty-four hours now. Jia had slept, poorly, there in the living room, unwilling to go into the kitchen and look for any scraps left from Mama’s rummaging through the cupboards. The flies, how they had found their way inside a closed house was beyond her, were thick and buzzing. Jia could barely stand the smell. Her stomach roiled now, not just with hunger, but with nausea. She had to leave, had to find a way to food, to other survivors. If there were any. The silence was thick, cloying, and overwhelming. She had never felt more alone.
It was difficult to move the couch. She panted, straining to move it. Just days ago, with Mama helping her, of course, it had been easy. It was more than it being just her moving it, and Jia knew that.
If I don’t get food soon, I’ll die.
And despite her fear, her terror at the thought of stepping into a city empty of inhabitants and life, the urge to survive took hold, and she heaved at the couch again, felt one leg catch on the worn wood floor and gouge a deep scratch in it. Mama would kill me if she saw that. And then she laughed. It was small, dry, and sounded as if it were someone else, someone unfamiliar. A bark of sound in the silence. She shook her head, and the movement caused the world to dance and spots of light to appear before her eyes. She strained, pushing again at the couch, and it moved away from the front door enough for her to slide behind it, unlock the locks, and open it. She pushed again, one last time, and the couch gave way, giving her enough space to open the door further, slide out of the opening and into the bright sunshine overhead.
She blinked, shading her eyes and weaving slightly as she stood upright on the doorstep. The street was empty, preternaturally so. The trees that adorned the tiny front lawns of each house were all denuded of leaves from the ground to over six feet in height. The grass was gone, only dirt and the occasional root showing. Everything looked odd, barren, as if a mad landscaper had removed every last leaf and laid the world bare. There was no sound, not a voice, not the twittering of birds, the sound of traffic, nothing. It was as if the city was empty of its inhabitants, but worse, stripped of every animal and plant as well.
Jia walked down her block, past another, the sickly-sweet smell of rot the only constant. She saw bodies then, scattered, lying where they had fallen, clawing for food, eyes staring, flies buzzing. Jia swallowed down nausea, sick at the sight of death at every turn. It took an hour for her to reach Hequn Road and when she did, she wished hadn’t.
The road was littered with bodies, the open-air market where she had loved to share a bowl of Hot Pot with Cheng before he had left for Hong Kong, where she shopped each week for their meals, was in tatters and bodies lay among destroyed stalls, pots, and swarms of green flies.
It was here, however, that she found other survivors. Hollow-eyed and unsmiling, she joined them as they left the city, stumbling as they moved away from the city and into the countryside. In the countryside, there was some nourishment to be found. As day faded to night, Jia and a group of other survivors skinned, cooked, and ate a goat from the remains of a farm. She felt slightly guilty as she sat by the fire and gorged on a haunch of poorly cooked, unseasoned meat.
The family that had worked this land were dead, their corpses swollen and rotting in a field 200 meters away. As her hunger pangs subsided, it startled Jia and the others to see jets streaking across the sky. They watched as each of the aircraft dropped their deadly cargo and enormous explosions lit up the sky. Beside her, a young man stared at the fire blooming in a column in the sky.
“They’re too late to stop it. Everyone is dead.”
“We’re not,” Jia said, softly.
“We might as well be. They will shoot us on sight, I think. I saw them do it when riots over food broke out.” He shook his head. “They’re too late. Far too late. All that’s left are the dead.” His eyes slid over her and towards the city in the distance, the flames reflected in his dark eyes. “They’ll come for us as well. Or we will eat ourselves to death, just like the others. We are the walking dead.”
Five days later, they stopped on the outskirts of a town. The population sign showed it had been a town of over five thousand people. The wind shifted as the ragtag group of survivors stood on the tarmac, and the smell of decay blasted them. Jia stayed on the road with the others while two of the men walked through the town, calling out. The next morning, one of them was dead, a handful of pills in his hand. He had been the one who told Jia they were the walking dead.
Six Months Later
“Just a pinch, now, Jia.” The technician’s face was round, kind. “Folks tell me I’m the best at this.” She slid the needle into Jia’s skin and released the flexible tubing from around Jia’s arm.
Jia watched as the blood filled the ampules with a thick red froth. “What do you hope to find?” She said it haltingly. English was still new, and she had been struggling to learn the language for nearly four months now, ever since she had arrived with other ESH survivors to the new city of New Athens.
The woman smiled at her. “You are a rarity, Jia. And we are doing some genetic testing to find out your profile and see why you, and not any of your other family, survived the virus. AB negative blood in the Asian population is incredibly rare, less than one in one thousand have it.”
She filled a second and the third ampule. “We will do a full profile and you can pick up the results tomorrow if you like.”
Jia nodded, smiling tentatively in return. “Yes, thank you.”
The next day she returned, struggling to remember the words in English to describe what she needed. “I ah, I pick up, um, the...” The woman manning the front desk stared at her and Jia felt embarrassed.
A voice from down the hall spoke up. “Ah, Jia! I see you returned for your lab results.” It was the kind technician, the one who had taken such care of her the day before. She had been right. The blood draw hadn’t hurt a bit. “Come in, come in!”
Jia heaved a sigh of relief and followed her down the hallway and into a small office. The woman pointed to a chair. “Sit, please. I want to talk with you a moment.” She waited until Jia sat down and then plopped into the chair opposite and handed over several sheets of paper. “What can you tell me about your father?”
“My father? He died five, no, six years ago now. We were not close.” Jia toed her chair rung. “I am sorry, I should not say that.”
The woman nodded thoughtfully. “You noted here that your parents were both full-blooded Chinese.”
Jia nodded, confused. “Yes, of course. Why?”
“Well, according to these results, Jia, your father was not Chinese. He was of European descent, probably from Germany or possibly Austria.” She tapped the bottom of the first page. “Those genetic markers right there are quite clear. You are only half-Chinese, which means the secret to your survival was in your genetic heritage. I’m sure your father possesses the AB blood type, and if so, chances are that he may have survived the virus. Have you logged into the Survivor Network yet?”
Jia blinked at her, at a loss for what to say. Bao Wang was not her father? How was this possible? She opened her mouth, then closed it. The words in her head were all in Mandarin, not English. She did not know what to say.
The woman looked concerned. “I am so sorry, Jia. This must be a deep shock to you!” She put a hand on Jia’s shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “Look, if you need anything, the Survivor Network can help. Not only is it a way to reconnect with family, but it also provides counseling and support groups for people who are still struggling with our new world and reality. I hope you will consider signing up and taking advantage of the services. Who knows, you might even find him.”
“Find...him?” Jia’s voice sounded hesitant, stretched.
“Your father.” She smiled. “After all this, wouldn’t that be a miracle?”
Jia walked from the Med Center in a scattered fog, her mind replaying moments of her childhood in a fast loop of memories. Her mother and father fighting, her father staring at her with something akin to hatred, and him never, ever holding her or loving her. She had seen other dads with their daughters. Her friends had loved their fathers, and their fathers had obviously loved them. But hers? She had never understood it and, even as she felt traitorous and unworthy thinking about it, she had been relieved when he had passed away shortly before her eleventh birthday. His absence from their home had allowed it to feel less like living in an enemy camp and more like a home. Even if it was filled with a mother who did not understand her.
She stared at the papers in her hand, shocked at her new reality. Her father wasn’t her father. Her father, the only one she had known, the one who lay in a casket deep in the ground thousands of miles away, wasn’t her biological father. So... what? Mama had an affair? Just imagining it was mind-boggling.
She walked back to the comfortable suite of rooms they had given her in the large apartment block on the west end of New Athens. Here she was alone, free to decorate the walls in a way she saw fit, and eat and live how she wanted. It was such a far cry from living with Mama in Guiyang or the internment camps that she had found herself in for over two months before she had qualified to go to the Reformed United States of America. She sat down on the couch and absentmindedly poured herself some tea as she stared at the papers and pulled up the Survivor Network on her tablet.
She blinked as the screen splashed a message of welcome and prompted her to enter her information. She typed it in and clicked the Search button, hoping for it to match her with someone just as much as she hoped it wouldn’t. A moment later, it chimed softly with a match. Her genetic profile, listed in a standard identifier on the papers the technician had given her, had found a match in the system and it displayed a photo next to the details. He lived in New Munich, the report listed, and he had included a request to be identified to any potential genetic matches, which meant that he might very well have been looking for her. Possibly? Probably. She sucked in a breath and let it out slowly.
A question appeared on the screen: “Notify Genetic Match?” She could log out now, walk away, and never have to talk to him, never meet him. Her finger hovered over the button, hesitating.
Jia clicked it. He was, after all, the secret of her survival.
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