September 10, 1918
“Elizabeth!” a voice called from downstairs. Elizabeth was just finishing her makeup in her room.
“I’ll be down in a second!” she yelled down. Her mom had been all anal about the first day of school for a week, and it was finally here. She put her makeup back into her drawers, and then daintily walked down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Oh Elizabeth,” her mother said when Elizabeth entered the room. “You need to hurry, Jake’s already left for school.”
“It doesn’t start for another hour though,” she replied.
“Well he’s excited, so I just let him go,” her mom said.
“He better not get hurt.”
“He’ll be fine!” Elizabeth shrugged and grabbed her daily ration from the shelf. Ever since the war started, there had been less food to go around, but she was used to it.
“Where’s dad?” Elizabeth asked.
“He’s out fixing the radio,” her mom answered. “Damn thing keeps picking up stuff that sounds like Hun (derogatory term for Germans during World War 1) garble.” Elizabeth laughed, and looked outside. Sure enough, he was out there, shaking his head and looking frustrated, as he always did when he was working on something that was even slightly more complicated than a jigsaw puzzle.
“George isn’t back either. He left a couple of hours ago. Where could he even be for this long?” her mom said. The clock rang out 8:00.
“You’d better head off dear, school starts at 8:30.” Elizabeth kissed her mother on the cheek, and headed out the door, saying goodbye to her father, who shivered and grumbled a quiet “yeahyeah.”
As she walked to school, she noticed a cart going by that had no windows. It was being drawn by a horse, and the driver seemed sombre, as if his cargo wasn’t something for anyone to see. She paid no mind, passing by the suffrage advocates, shouting their demand for rights. Every day, they stood outside of their building, shouting the same protests and holding the same signs. Elizabeth had heard that the Women’s suffrage movement was really gaining momentum down in the south around Washington D.C., but she wasn’t too sure. Rumors ran rampant around her city, Philadelphia, and the people down there were barely over slavery, let alone women’s suffrage. It wasn’t something that concerned her anyway, in her opinion. She never had much interest in voting herself, and these girls had a bit more masculine drive than what she really wanted and possessed personally. She just walked by these protesting girls and by 8:25, she had reached the school house.
Jake was already in the one room school house, talking to his friend Nicholas about the war, going in gory detail about events that probably didn’t happen and probably never would.
“Dan came back the other day from Germany, and boy, was he different,” Elizabeth overheard Nicholas say, “He seemed so much more mature and happy. Probably gave those Huns a big what for. Who knows what’s gonna happen next to those dirty Germans!”
“I heard that if an American sees one of them, they kill them immediately!” Jake said, smiling.
“Jake!” Elizabeth said. Jake, who hadn’t realized that Elizabeth had even entered the schoolhouse and was listening, looked embarrassed. “They may be our enemy, but these are human lives that you’re talking about Jake,” she said. Nicholas smirked, and Elizabeth eyed him down until he looked away. Before long, the teacher tapped a yardstick on her desk a few times.
“Good morning everyone!” she said. “Welcome back to school. As you know, you are all in 9th grade now, and I am Ms. Waters. You all know each other, so I will waste no time in beginning the teaching that I am paid to do.” Elizabeth remembered what a joy her teacher was. She was a sarcastic flapper who belonged with the suffrage girls, not with the teachers. After her initial coldness settled, however, the day went on just like school in 8th grade. At 12, the bell rang for their day to end and for the new 8th graders to clear in. Elizabeth stood waiting for Jake to come out of the small schoolhouse, but when he came out, he was with Nicholas, and he didn’t even make note of Elizabeth’s presence.
“Jake!” she called out. He stopped and looked at her.
“What?” he said, a not so friendly tone reflecting in his voice.
“I’m supposed to walk you home.”
“Well, I’ll be walking with Nick, so you can just walk home by yourself, Lizzy.” He turned around before Elizabeth could retort and she just stood there in silence, shocked by the sudden and radical personality change that had occurred in her brother. She had never liked Nick, but now he just seemed to be a war-obsessed teenager who was affecting the personality of her own brother. Not like she could do anything about it. His parents were highly esteemed in the government of Philly, and speaking out against him would be like speaking out against them. Shrugging to herself, she walked home by herself, passing the ladies of suffrage and another strange cart.
When she opened the door to her house, the radio echoed through. Apparently her dad had pulled through, and they now had the radio to listen to.
“Mom!” she called. “I’m home!”
“Elizabeth, come here quick, please!” she heard her mom call from their small living room. She walked in to see her mother, father, Nicholas, and Jake gathered around the radio. A newscast started.
“One thousand dead in a plague that seems to be wracking the United States! No one knows what is causing it, but if you see carts roaming the city, do not be alarmed, but be saddened. These are for people who have passed away near you that need transport to a morgue. I would advise you all to stay indoors and listen to the radio until you hear anything else regarding the condition of this terrible plague.” The newscaster stopped talking and a jingle played, signalling the start of some commercials. Everyone in the room sat in silence.
“It’s only a thousand people,” Jake said optimistically. “Let’s not be too worried about it.”
“They did say stay indoors, though,” his mom said. “I don’t want you three going to school tomorrow.”
“But I need to get back to Dan, and my Mom and-” Nicholas started, but he was shushed by Elizabeth and Jake’s mom.
“I can’t let you risk getting this plague. We’ve seen more than one of these carts go by, it’s near us.”
Nick sighed, and shrugged. “Come on Jake, let’s go play in your room,” he said. Jake nodded and they headed upstairs. An awkward lack of speaking pervaded the room, as Elizabeth, her mother and her father listened to a mindless jingle for “new rare fruit not seen anywhere since before the war broke out.” No one spoke, and then her mom started to cry.
“Where did George go?” She sobbed, “My baby!” Elizabeth’s father wrapped his arms around her.
“There there, Margaret, he probably heard an earlier broadcast of this message and is at a friend’s house,” he said. It was obvious that he had his doubts too, but Jake had gotten his optimism from his father, and before long, she stopped sobbing.
Elizabeth sat there, staring at nothing, watching her mother break down. She was the strongest woman that she knew, and seeing that was hard. She quietly excused herself to her room and laid down on the bed. She heard her brother and Nick playing some kind of wargame, yelling about the damned dirty Germans and their damned dirty country. She wanted to shut them up, but seeing her mother in that sorry state had been too emotionally draining for her, so she let her eyes shut until dinner, and then headed off to bed earlier than usual.
The next morning, a scream woke Elizabeth up. It was her mother. She quickly rushed down the stairs in her night clothes to see her mom in the living room.
“Mom?” she yelled worriedly. “What is it?!”
Her mom sobbed and screamed, “Nick and Jake are gone! They must have snuck off to his house or to school or something…”
Elizabeth hugged her mother. “They’ll be fine, I promise. I’m not leaving the house.”
Her mom hugged her back, mumbling through tears, “Don’t leave me babe… please.” Her mom crumpled down on the couch and sobbed. Anger pulsed through Elizabeth. Jake’s own selfishness had hurt his mother, and he would pay when he came back. There was no newscast about the new plague today, but several carts of the dead passed by, presumably carrying a rising body count of this new terrible plague. Where was it coming from? Why had God cursed them all with this plague that was killing so many? Stopping her thoughts was a knock on the door. Her mother didn’t budge, and her father was presumably upstairs, so she went and answered the door. It was a man, who looked like he was selling something.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but we’re with the local coffin business, and if you have any people dyin-” She slammed the door in his face when she knew that her mom had heard him. Her incoherent wails were becoming too much, so she ran up to her mother and father’s room to see if maybe he could reach her and comfort her. She saw her dad, still laying in bed. She laid down in bed with him, and put her arm around him.
“I can’t believe you aren’t going downstairs to comfort her,” she said. “She needs you.” Her dad didn’t reply, and she was confused.
“Dad?” she said again, nudging him to wake him up. He wouldn’t budge. She grabbed his arm, and that’s when she noticed. He had gone ice cold, and that’s when she knew what had happened. This plague had taken her father under their very noses. She laid there, in denial, crying “...dad, wake up… please!” but nothing happened. He was dead. This news coupled with the wailing of her mother, who didn’t even know about her husband, was almost too much for her. Tears flowed down her cheeks, and she barely made it down the stairs. She just wrapped her arms around her mother, and they cried for what seemed like hours.
“Is Frank… is he?” her mother said after what seemed like forever. Elizabeth could only nod, and her mother’s wailing grew to an ear piercing level. The crying seemed to continue for hours, and then it slowly faded out as they grew weak.
“We should arrange a funeral,” her mom said, clear pain and difficulty in her voice.
“And what, risk us dying?” Elizabeth moaned. Elizabeth’s mother just crumpled past where she was before and sat there, emotionless. Elizabeth just slowly got up and walked into the kitchen, when there was another knock on the door. When she opened it up, it was Jake. Elizabeth started sobbing and took Jake into her arms.
“Oh Jake… thank god,” she said though the tears. “Dad, he-”
“Dan is dead,” Jake said, without emotion. “The soldier. Nick is throwing up and shivering. I need to talk to mom or dad right now.”
“Jake… dad died. Of this godforsaken flu.”
Jake sat there in disbelief. “No. He couldn’t have. There’s just no-”
“He’s dead Jake.”
“... And mom?”
“She’s traumatized, but alive…”
Jake ran over to the living room and switched on the radio.
“Jake, what the hell are you-”
The radio began a broadcast. “Twenty thousand people dead in a matter of twenty-seven hours. This plague is destroying America, and with the recent arrival of American troops coming back from Germany, one can only wonder if the Huns have caused this. Coffins will be delivered to your doors starting tomorrow. We are very sorry for the losses that everyone has been suffering.” The cast ended, and Jake switched off the radio.
“What is happening, Lizzy? What have we done to deserve this?” Jake sobbed.
Elizabeth shook her head, trying to hold back even more tears. “I don’t know Jake. I don’t know.”
… One Week Later
Elizabeth stood in a funeral home with her mother. They stood there, looking at the three coffins that held Elizabeth's father, and both of her brothers. George had been found dead, lying on the ground of a supermarket, and by the time they had been notified, he had already started to rot. Jake had started to show symptoms after George was found, but within an hour of the beginning, the two ladies had found him hanging from his ceiling, with a note on his desk simply reading, “I am so sorry.”
Around them, coffins stacked up to the ceiling, holding lost people, ranging from the smallest baby coffin, to the largest coffin for a full grown adult. No one was safe, and any day, Elizabeth and her mother waited to feel the symptoms and realize they only had 24 hours left, but for some reason, God punished them by making them feel the loss of everyone around them.
The mortician hobbled over through the stacks of the dead, and looked at the three coffins that held the loved ones of the only other living people in the building.
“I can arrange a funeral, but to be honest, I’m not sure who’ll come. If you want, I can arrange a burial tomorrow evening. If you’d like to attend, you’d be welcome to.”
“What about tombstones?” Elizabeth murmured quietly. The mortician shook his head.
“Too many dead. I’m sorry, ladies, but these three are going to have to go unmarked.”
Elizabeth’s mother held back sobs and tears. She nodded and signed paperwork with a shaky hand, then walked outside of the home with Elizabeth.
On the way home, they passed by the suffrage ladies. There were four left, still standing outside, still protesting, and even though they were fourteen ladies down, they still stood there, yelling for the right to vote. The city had a ghostly feel to it, so there was really no one to listen to them, but their cries for change echoed down the dead city. Coffins stood in front of everyone’s homes, some filled, some being prepared. Death carts carrying the bodies of those too poor to afford a coffin went down the street every few seconds, and a walk home that usually took 25 minutes felt like an absolute eternity.
For the first time in days, Elizabeth’s mom didn’t wail. She merely cried helplessly on the couch, listening to the decreasingly positive prognosis on the plague wrecking the United States. Today, was different however.
“Five hundred thousand people have died across the United States, but an important discovery has been made. Living scientists have discovered the cause to be none other than influenza, or more commonly known as the flu. They have determined this by-” At this point, Elizabeth’s mom picked up the radio and threw it across the room, screaming and crying.
“Screw you!” she yelled, completely unlike herself. “Jake has had the flu! Frank has had the flu! George has had the flu! What is killing us is not the flu!” She collapsed on the ground and sobbed. Elizabeth just stood there, looking at the former radio. Where was the hope? Her mother was a wreck, and she could get sick any day now. What was the point of living anymore?
… Two Weeks Later
Elizabeth inherited the house after her mom passed away. She hadn’t caught the flu, or took her own life. Her heart gave out, and now the house was hers. She didn’t want it. All that remained was the past, and the feeling of sickness. She was alone in a house where people used to be. There empty rooms with beds messy from the last time the person had been alive sleeping in it, and now that the terrible influenza was going away, she didn’t feel any better. Everyone around her had died, and everyone around everyone had died. Coffins were still stacked in front of the houses, and the carriages of death still rode through town, but everything was different.
Six hundred thousand people were gone from this Earth that didn’t deserve to die, and why? Not because of Germans, but because a nasty strain from Kansas had just decided to decimate the country. It was news that she received from her friends with radios that really tore her apart. She had survived a biblical plague, and for what? To lose her entire family? She was prepared to hang herself, but then she remembered her family. She was the only one who could carry on their legacy. People who didn’t deserve to die had died, and in the memory of them, she would carry on. The most horrifying and reality shattering time of her life was behind her, and she knew that now that she had braved the plague, things could only go up from here.
For the first time in a month, Elizabeth smiled.
Written by Alexo774