Over the next few days I’ll be releasing the first four chapters of Last Alive, beginning today with the first chapter.
On Monday morning Will Carter walked to the front of the lecture theater and prepared to teach the final lesson of the semester for Anthropology 101 to a class of over one hundred mostly disinterested (but every so often remarkably insightful) students.
This close to the end of term it was particularly hard to keep their attention as they were planning their summer vacations, navigating the tricky waters of what a four month separation would do to their relationships, figuring out if they should pack that poster or leave it behind (as it was so obviously emblematic of their less mature, younger selves), chomping at the bit to leave papers and exams behind for a few months.
Today though, instead of walking into the din of everyone settling into their seats and chatting with their neighbors as usual, it was dead silent- empty but for a few students dotted throughout the room. Will counted eight in total. Eight out of a first-year class of one hundred and thirty-five.On Friday there had been a few out sick due to what seemed to be a spring cold going around, but he had never seen anything like this.
Will was just about to suggest that everyone present move down to the first row when the door opened and Carol from the registrar’s office hurried down the aisle.
“Morning, Carol.” Will smiled as she got closer, her tight green skirt hampering her speed. Carol was an attractive brunette in her early thirties and more than a little flirty with him whenever they had occasion to speak.
Will was happily married and had been for almost twenty years, but he would be lying if he said he didn’t appreciate the attention a little bit, especially on days when the gray in his light brown hair was a little more prominent in the mirror and his back protested when he rolled out of bed too quickly.
Today Carol’s face was serious and unsmiling.
“Will, they’re closing campus,” she said quietly, glancing behind her at the students.
“Right now? We just got here.”
“Immediately.” She frowned and moved in closer, speaking in almost a whisper. “Word came down from the department of health a few moments ago. All the schools in the county are closing.”
“I better call Abby.” He wanted to make sure she knew their boys would be coming home early. Will squinted up at the rectangles of fluorescent light, trying to remember if she was at home this morning or if she’d mentioned a client meeting.
“There’s more.” Carol’s face was deathly pale and her right hand worried the brightly colored bead bracelet on her left as she spoke. “There’s talk of a quarantine.”
“For the entire county. Maybe even the state.” Carol reached out and grabbed Will’s arm, gripping it as if trying to emphasize the importance of what she was about to tell him. “My sister works at the police station. Will, they’re getting ready for something bad. She called me a few minutes ago and told me to go to the grocery store and stock up. You should do the same.”
“Carol,” Will said. “We’ll take precautions, sure, but remember the H1N1 panic? And SARS? Everyone panicking and it turned out to be nothing. They’re covering their asses, nothing more.”
Carol shook her head in disagreement. “You should take this seriously. I have to go let others know. Be safe.” She gave his arm a gentler squeeze before turning to leave. Will watched her go, the damned skirt adding a touch of the ridiculous to the situation as she plinked her way back up the aisle.
He brought his attention back to his class and saw the worry on his student’s faces. Hannah Plaskett, a slight girl with pale skin and big glasses, had overheard everything, despite Carol’s attempt at discretion, and now tears had filled her eyes and threatened to spill down her face.
“Hey, hey,” Will said. “It’s okay Hannah.” He patted her hand. “Don’t cry. You’re fine. You’ll be fine. We’re all going to be fine.” Too many fines, he thought.
Hannah inhaled shakily. “It’s not me. It’s my mom. I tried to call her this weekend and she didn’t answer or call me back.” The tears finally broke away and streamed over her cheeks. “What if she’s sick?”
“If she is then your mom is being taken care of and getting well, and she will get in touch when she can. Does your mother live in town, Hannah?”
“No, I’m from Iowa.”
“Well, that’s pretty far from Ashford so I’m sure your mom is fine.” Fine. He made a mental note to use a different word. Will smiled, trying to reassure the worried student. “If they are talking about a quarantine then the flu must be limited. No point in a quarantine if it’s everywhere.”
“What if it’s not? Limited, I mean.” A kid with headphones around his neck and his feet up on the seat next to him piped up from close to the back of the theater.
Will paused. “Let’s think critically about this, folks. This isn’t the movies. A virus doesn’t move that fast. There was nothing about it on the news this morning so closing the schools is just a precaution.”
“Professor Carter?” Another student put their hand up in the air. Will couldn’t remember the kid’s name.
“There was a post on WhatTheyDontSay.com and…”
“A post on what the what?” Will asked.
“It’s a website. For like, conspiracy theory stuff? You know.”
Will laughed, “I don’t think that’s your best source of reliable information, do you?”
The kid leaned forward, his eyes wide and intense. “It is, if the government won’t tell us what’s really going on.”
“Refresh my memory. What’s your name?” Will asked. The first year classes were so large he rarely got to know them all, but he still tried.
“Damon King.” The boy looked nonplussed.
“Well, Mr. King,” Will said. “Being skeptical is a good thing. Gets us thinking. But like I mentioned, this isn’t a movie. The government is here to protect and work for us. It’s easy to panic and get scared and dream up conspiracy theories but the easiest answer is usually the truth.”
He automatically moved into lecturer mode. “Occam’s Razor, folks. The hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is most often the best.”
“And what’s the easy answer, Prof? ‘Cause everyone in my dorm started getting sick yesterday and they had to go to the hospital. But some of us tried to call to check on them and they won’t tell us anything.”
“The easiest answer is that there seems to be very bad flu that popped up over the weekend, and we all need to take precautions. And if we do what we are told and follow the rules, we’ll be fine.”
Will caught the look of disappointment from Damon King before the kid’s face went blank again and he pulled his hoodie up over his headphones.
The students packed up their books and filed out of the room, leaving Will standing in the front, watching them as they left.