Autumn in the City of Angels

Read the first Chapter here!

~ Chapter One ~

Sail lines clinked and boats rubbed against their bumpers as I hurried through the marina on the way to my after-school job at the radio station.  Palm trees sparkled as they bobbed in the gentle sea breeze, and I glanced upwards, my eyes tracing the mast of a large boat.  A shadow flashed across me, and a metallic clang cracked the air.  A feathery mass fell to the dock with a dense thud just ahead of me.

I froze for a moment, then cautiously stepped toward it.  The seagull was still, its wings stretched across the wooden planks, and the grayish white feathers fluttered in the breeze as if still in flight.  A voice behind me made me jump.

“That mast did him a favor, trust me.  He won’t have to witness it.”  I turned and saw a man loading boxes into a boat.

“Witness what?” I asked.

“The end,” he said simply. “You better get on home, little girl, before you end up like that bird.  There’s a storm coming.”

The temperature of my blood dropped several degrees, and I took a step back.  My heart quickened.  “Storm?”  I prompted, looking at the boxes on the dock labeled “non-perishable.”

The man glanced wearily at the snarled traffic visible beyond the marina’s parking lot, mumbled something incoherent and continued to load his boat.  I took a few steps away, edging around the fallen seagull.  My feet ceased to move when its head came into view.  There was no blood, but its beak was broken. I gasped and stood transfixed, feeling my own blood beat through my veins.

Something made me look up, and suddenly I was staring into the man’s watery blue eyes.  His graying whiskers twitched as he watched me intently.  He said very quietly, “Get on home now.”

Feeling as though a leash around my neck had been cut, I turned and ran, my hair flowing over my backpack like a red cape.  As soon as I was out of the marina, the choking fear dissipated, and I felt foolish for being spooked by a crazy man.  Los Angeles was full of crazy people.  He wasn’t the first one I’d run in to.

I shook my head as I walked, feeling my head clear and my heartbeat return to normal.  My cell phone chirped the arrival of a text message.

It was from Sarah.  “Coffee?” was all it said.  It was only five after three.  I’d have time to stop and still make it to work.  I tapped out “on my way,” and my pace quickened as I thought of the cold spicy sweetness of an iced chai latte and the warm camaraderie of my best friend.

Sarah worked after school at Everland Coffee Company.  She’d been my closest friend since sixth grade when she’d punched Travis Bainbridge in the stomach after he teased me for being too short to reach the top shelf in my own locker.  Sarah and I were like puzzle pieces, complete opposites who just clicked.

She was already behind the counter when I arrived, wrapped in a black apron with a green frog logo embroidered on the top.  She looked up at me as I came in, grinned and stashed her cell phone in her apron pocket.  I looked around the empty café.

“Wow, slow today?” I asked, letting my school bag fall to the tile floor by my feet.

Sarah collapsed in a mock faint across the counter and mumbled, “Miserably.  Bad for tips.”  She sighed as she straightened and plucked a large cup off the top of a leaning tower nearby.  She squirted several pumps of dark brown chai concentrate into the cup and added milk, then threw back the lid of the ice maker with a crash and said over her shoulder, “I did get a raise though.  Mr. Boss Man stopped by and told me he was upping me to eight fifty an hour.”

“Maybe you can buy some new shoes now,” I joked.  Sarah’s favorite shoes were a pair of seriously old Jack Purcells that we’d doodled on during an infamously boring study hall last year.  After I noticed her sock poking through the side of them one day, I started teasing her about them and had never stopped.

“Ha.  Ha.  Ha.”  She said slowly and thumped my drink down on the counter.  Her slender fingers flew over the cash register keys as she rang me up.  I handed her four ones, and she glared at me as she gave me a penny in return.

“Don’t… you… dare…” she warned.

I raised my eyebrows innocently as my hand hovered over the ceramic tip jar and slowly let the penny slide off my palm.  It clanked noisily at the bottom.  Sarah groaned and dramatically fell onto the counter again.

While she wasn’t looking, I stuffed a dollar bill into her tip jar and said, “Something totally weird happened to me right before I got your text.  I was cutting through the marina on my way to the radio station and a bird flew into a boat mast.”

Sarah peeked up at me through a spray of brown hair.  “Was it okay?”

I peeled the wrapper off the straw and stabbed it through the lid of my cup.  “No.  It fell right in front me.  Its head was… well, I couldn’t stop looking at it.”

“You were staring at a dead bird?  That’s all kinds of morbid.”  She cocked an eyebrow at me.

“That’s only half of it.  There was this man…” My voice trailed off as I realized she wasn’t paying attention to me anymore.  I followed her gaze to the television mounted on the wall.  A news station was muted.

“It’s my mom,” she whispered.  She dug under the counter for the remote without taking her eyes off the screen.  Volume bars appeared with the sound.

“Where did you see your mom?”  I asked.  She didn’t respond and her hand disappeared into her apron pocket and fished out her cell phone.

Sarah’s mom was a local news anchor, but I didn’t recognize the woman behind the news desk.  The video clip replayed, and I saw a woman being shut into the back of an ambulance.  I recognized the chestnut hair her daughter inherited.  Her face was flushed an alarming shade of red, and she looked unconscious.

“What’s going on?  Sarah –” I looked at her, and the rest of my sentence crumbled apart.  Her face was as white as the frosted cupcakes in the display case, and her cell phone was pressed to her ear.  She muted the television again and had a hurried conversation, her eyes growing wide, then hung up quickly.

“My dad wants us both to ditch work and go to your place, right now.  My mom has some kind of fever.  He said a lot of people suddenly have it.  Like an epidemic or something.”

I felt disbelief etch across my face. I was about to ask if she was serious when she grabbed my arm and gasped.  My head snapped in the direction she was looking just in time to see a blue minivan hop a curb in the intersection outside, clip a metal newspaper stand, careen back into the street and run the red light.  A barrage of car horns followed in its wake.  In the brief moment the van passed by, I saw a panicked elderly man behind the wheel and a flushed woman reclined in the passenger seat beside him.

We stared at the intersection, and Sarah’s grip on my arm loosened.  Traffic quickly returned to normal, and the only indicator something out of the ordinary had happened was the red metal newspaper stand leaning to one side like a giant exotic flower growing out of the sidewalk.

“What the –” I nearly said a word my mother would have grounded me for, but Sarah cut me off.  She looked dazed.

“That was Mr. Cho.  He owns that market on the corner – the one with the rice crackers you like.  I saw him this morning.  He said his wife wasn’t feeling well – had a fever.”

“We should go,” I decided immediately.  I picked up my bag, ready to leave, but Sarah had the volume turned up on the television again.  “Come on, Sarah.”

“I’m going to stay here.”  Her eyes didn’t leave the screen.

“Your dad said we should go to my place and wait there,” I pressed.

“Shh, I want to see what the news is saying.”

I gently took her hand.  “We can watch the news from my place.  Let’s do what your dad said.  So he knows where to find you.”

When she finally agreed, she quickly closed up the coffee shop, reluctantly turned off the TV and locked the front door behind us.  We cut through the marina on the way home, following my earlier path.  When we passed the now-empty berth where the man warned me earlier, a shiver passed over me, despite the sun shining brightly on our shoulders.  The dead bird was gone, too.

When we reached the curved driveway leading to the tower of condos where I lived, Sarah suddenly broke away from me, dodged through a crowd of people wearing surgical masks and leapt onto a public bus.  I was too startled by her behavior to follow, but called her name as she disappeared.  I broke into a run as the bus began to move, and she reappeared at a window and yelled down to me, “I have to get to my mom.  I’m sorry!”

I yelled her name once more, panicked at her abrupt departure.  The bus engine growled loudly, and I saw her hold up her phone and pretend to type, her eyebrows raised, and I nodded helplessly as the bus picked up speed and disappeared.

*     *     *

The news anchor’s voice was pitched at a level just above normal and just under hysteria.  She tried valiantly to maintain a professional air, but her shirt was buttoned wrong and her microphone wire was showing.  Without warning, the signal cut off and a screen full of colored bars appeared.  “We’ll be back soon!” ran across the screen, and cheerful elevator music filled the living room, juxtaposing the earlier morbid news report.

Dazed, I tapped out a response to Sarah’s text message.  She’d reached the hospital where her mom was taken and was trying to find her in the massive crowds.  After hitting send, I held down the number one key on my phone, autodialing my dad’s cell.  It went directly to voicemail.  I didn’t leave a message.  I figured the three messages I’d already left would suffice.

I called the public radio station I interned at after school.  No one picked up.  I tried calling my boss’ cell phone, but he didn’t pick up either.  After that, I began rotating through all of my parents’ phone numbers again.  I was leaving a message for my mother’s personal assistant when the frazzled news anchor reappeared on the screen.

“…are showing flu-like symptoms.  The number of cases reported from Cedars Sinai and UCLA Medical Center has skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the last hour alone.  We don’t have a confirmed number of the infected for you at this time, however public health officials are urging everyone to stay in their homes and wait for more news here on KTLA.  Here’s Eric Melton, with traffic.  Eric?”

The picture cut to the map of Los Angeles’ freeways.  My brow furrowed as I looked at the tangled web of solid red freeways.  Even in the summer, when everyone tried to go to the beach and the congestion was the worst, the traffic maps didn’t turn completely red.

Eric appeared at the far edge of the screen, his fake tan contrasting with the fearful expression in his eyes.  “As you can see, the freeways are just a mess right now.  Several closures for you: the 101 North at Lankershim Boulevard, two left lanes closed.  Multiple lane closures on the 405 through the Westside and down to the 5, going both directions.  The 10 Westbound is completely shut down, as is the 15 North and 91 East.  Interstate 5 looks like it’ll be the next complete shutdown.  Stay at home, folks.  It’s a mess out there.”

The map disappeared suddenly, replaced by a commercial for a furniture warehouse.  When the commercial ended, the news anchor reappeared and I stood at attention.

“We have an update for you on the new flu virus strain, dubbed the Crimson Fever.  Cedars Sinai has confirmed the death of an elderly woman who was admitted this morning with a high fever.  The hospital will not confirm how many similar cases they’re treating, but we can tell you both Cedars and UCLA Medical Center are running at full staff to deal with the record volume of patients.  In an official press release from the Center for Disease Control, they’ve warned that the virus appears to be airborne and highly contagious.  They’re asking everyone to stay indoors until the situation is controlled.  If anyone in your home develops a fever, call the police for emergency assistance and quarantine them in a separate room until help arrives.”

I stood in the center of the living room, staring at the television screen, my hand covering my mouth.  It was like watching a movie.

I switched over to CNN.  The news anchor listed symptoms to watch for: high fever, chills, dementia, dilated pupils and a high pulse.  The ticker running across the bottom of the screen listed cities: New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Denver and Boston.

The news anchor turned to someone murmuring off screen.  I watched as his facial expression hardened and a slight sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead.  He stuttered before continuing his report, “We ha-have word from authorities who are now confirming similar cases in the following international locations: London, Moscow, Prague, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro…”

His voice faded, and I felt suddenly light-headed.  My mother was in London shooting a film at Elstree Studios.  I fumbled for my phone again and held down the number two button.  I paced the floor as I waited, but it wasn’t ringing.  “Hello?” I said, wondering if she’d picked up.  But then a computerized voice pleasantly told me all circuits were busy and that I should try my call at another time.  I hung up and immediately tried again.  Her phone rang three times and went straight to voicemail.  I tried not to let my voice get too high-pitched as I left her another message.

I was used to spending time at home by myself, but in all that time, I’d never really felt alone like I did now.  My famous mother would often be gone for long periods of time, shooting a movie on location somewhere.  She’d been acting since she was a little girl, and her schedule kept her busy.  My dad was an architect, but he worked from home as often as possible, so I was never on my own for long.  I sat down on the couch and wrapped my arms around myself, trying to ignore the panic fluttering in my stomach.

When it was just me and my dad, mellow strains of Willie Nelson drifted out of his office while I heated up frozen lasagnas.  My homework would be piled across the kitchen table, my sock monkey slippers lost underneath.  We’d eat standing up in the kitchen and drink root beer.  My dad would tell me about his current project and always ask for my opinion.

Those few weeks when my mother was in between projects, the atmosphere in our home changed drastically.  Big Band music blared while my mother danced from room to room as she gathered laundry or the forgotten mugs of coffee my dad left in a trail after him.  She joked that if she ever lost my dad, she could always follow the trail of coffee mugs.  My mother was one of those people who could have the television and radio on at the same time, and seem to pay attention to both as she cooked or looked at mail or ran on the treadmill.  She was the ultimate multi-tasker.  She was infectious.  And I loved everything about her.

I looked around the room helplessly, desperately wishing they were both here.  My eyes fixed on a small red light blinking on the phone in the kitchen, and I raced to it, vaulting over the back of the couch.  I punched the button for message play back.

“You have one new voicemail message… left today at… three… sixteen… PM…” The digital voice was agonizingly slow.  I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding as my mother’s warm, sweet voice filled the kitchen like the aroma of baking bread.  “Hello, my darlings, we just wrapped, and I’m headed back to the hotel.  I’m awfully tired, and I’ve got a headache, so I’m just going to hit the hay when I get there.  I hope you both had amazingly wonderful days and aren’t sitting around moping because you miss me so much.”  I could hear her smiling as she said this.  “We’ll catch up tomorrow night.  Autumn, honey, I hope you did well on your history test.  And Mister, I’ll text you a picture of the costume they have me in today.  I think you’ll like it.”  I smiled at her nickname for my dad.  She sighed and then said, “Have sweet dreams about me tonight.  I’ll be having sweet ones about you both.  Kisses.”

I tapped a button to save the message.  The kitchen suddenly seemed cold and empty without her voice filling it.

I backed up until my legs bumped against the coffee table.  The table was a giant wooden square my mother painted a floral design on in one of her fits of creativity.  I sat down and scooted to the center.  I placed the TV remote and my cell phone next to me and swallowed a few times, wondering if I was going to be sick.  Was I sick?  The kind of sick the news was talking about?  I felt my forehead.  I couldn’t tell if I was any warmer than usual.  I pressed my first two fingers against the inside of my wrist.  My pulse was hammering through my veins.

I suddenly remembered when I was nine years old and afraid I would die in my sleep.  I imagined all sorts of ways my body could stop working.  All the intricate and delicate parts of the human body fascinated and horrified me.  I made myself sick for several months by not allowing myself to sleep.  I got stomachaches and headaches, which only fueled my belief that something was wrong with me.

When my dad figured out what was going on, he bought me a stethoscope.  “Just like a real doctor has,” he told me as he gently placed the metal piece against my chest so I could hear my heartbeat.  “The heart is the most important organ in your entire body.  It keeps all the other organs going.  This way, you’ll be able to hear exactly what it’s doing all night long.”  The steady rhythm of my own heart helped me to sleep again.

I knew my heart wasn’t going to be a good indicator of whether I was getting sick or not now.  The news stations reported a high fever was the first indicator of the Crimson Fever.  Getting up, I rummaged through the medicine cabinet until I found a thermometer.  I stuck it under my tongue and returned to my perch on the coffee table.

I flipped between news stations and kept the thermometer under my tongue until it was dark outside.  Every few minutes, I rotated calling my parents, texting Sarah and checking the digital display on the thermometer.  My temperature maintained a perfect ninety-eight point six.

I unfolded my legs and winced as I stood up.  My feet were numb.  I hobbled to the windows, parted the gauzy curtains and stared down thirty-seven stories to the street choked with cars.  I could see their outlines, the beams of their headlights and the flashlights pedestrians carried.  Everything was bathed in the cool, electric blue-lavender of the Los Angeles nighttime sky.

Obviously people weren’t staying at home like the news stations advised.  Based on the boxes and suitcases they carried, it looked like everyone was trying to get out of town.  The number of reported deaths blamed on the Crimson Fever had grown over the last few hours.  I suppose I couldn’t really blame people for wanting to run, but from what I’d seen on TV, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to run to.  In the span of five hours, the sickness seemed to be everywhere.  I’d watched The Today Show with my dad before school this morning while I ate my cereal, and there was no mention of it.  This morning.  School.  It all seemed like days ago.  Would I even go to school tomorrow?

Suddenly, a beep cracked the silence of the room.  I jumped, clutching the neck of my t-shirt in terror.  It was my phone.  I could see the lit screen – a small rectangle of light in the dark room.  I sighed heavily.  It wasn’t a message or someone calling.  The battery was low.

I retrieved the charger and plugged it into a socket in the kitchen.  I mechanically called my dad again, hopeless that I’d actually get through.

“Hello!?”  My dad’s deep voice rushed through me, reassuring me.

“Dad!  Thank God!  I’ve been trying to call you all afternoon!” I realized we were talking over each other and stopped so I could hear what he was saying.

“—haven’t been able to get anyone on the phone for hours!  Are you okay?  Where are you?”

“I’m at home.  I’m fine.  I went to see Sarah on my way to the radio station, and we saw her mom on the news with a fever and her dad told us to come back here, but she went to find her parents anyway and—”

My dad cut me off. “Please stay inside, sweetie.  I’m trying to get home now.  I had to drive up to Malibu this afternoon to oversee a construction problem.  I’ve never seen traffic like this.  I’ve been on the road for hours.  Did you get any of my messages?”

“No, nothing.  I’ve been leaving you messages.”

“The phone lines must be overloaded.  I’m sorry, sweetheart.  It might be a few hours before I can get home.  Just stay inside.”  His voice began to sound labored.  “Don’t go out on the terrace, and don’t open any windows.  Have you taken your temperature?” he asked, breathing deeply now.

I nodded and then realized he couldn’t see me so I said, “Yes, it’s normal.”

“Good girl.  I don’t know how often I’ll be able to get through to you on the phone.”  He paused, then said, “Wow, that full moon sure is bright tonight, isn’t it, Missus?”

I swallowed, confused.  “Missus” was his nickname for my mother.  I looked out the kitchen window and saw only a quarter moon.  Chills broke out over my back.

“Dad, have you taken your temperature?”  I asked.

There was a pause before I heard him cheerfully answer.  “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.  I’ll be home soon.  I love you.”

“Love you, too,” I said automatically, then panicked and cried out, “Dad!  Wait!”  But he’d already hung up.  I’d forgotten to tell him my mother left a message.

“… is being upgraded to an official plague.” I heard a news reporter say from the living room.  I turned my attention back to the television.  “Unofficial reports from inside Cedars now claim the fatality rate is suspected to be nearly 100 percent.”  The reporter’s face was flushed behind a white surgical mask, and I watched him sway and then steady himself against the desktop.  “The disease is setting new records with its unparalleled rate of globalization.”  He paused to loosen his already-loose tie even more.  “The CDC reports that the first case was recorded at eight a.m. in Los Angeles and by mid-afternoon, hundreds of other cases were reported worldwide.  This is… this is unprecedented…”

I slid down the cabinets to the floor.  What was happening?  How could a disease spread so fast?  My dad was experiencing dementia.  That was one of the symptoms.  He was hours from home.  Could I go get him somehow?  Where would I even start looking?  He hadn’t told me what route he’d taken.  My mother’s words echoed through my head, “If you’re lost, stay where you are.  We’ll find you.”  I should stay home.  He would find me.  I just had to wait.

I sat on the kitchen floor, aware of the hours passing and the shifting light as the sun rose.  I waited to hear my dad’s key in the door.  But he never came home, and my mother didn’t call back.  The texts from Sarah stopped by morning, too.

A rock formed in my stomach, a heavy, dense rock of truth.  My parents weren’t coming home.  I stared at the creamy Los Angeles morning sky and was too stunned to even react to the morbid knowledge of their fate.  I was alone inside what was left of this city.  The last fifteen hours had changed my life forever.

I used to be Autumn Winters, daughter of an actress and an architect.  I had been one of three living in this home, but now I was just Autumn Winters, and I was alone.

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