She frowned at the pack of jackals with cameras at the cemetery gate. Marie leaned against her, a tissue pressed to her nose as she shook. Emily stroked her back and murmured the standard soothing words.
Nothing was standard or soothing these days, though. Young women, all strong and healthy, were suddenly dying of what seemed to be asthma attacks. None had asthma. When the fifth girl was found, the mayor called in the CDC. So far, the CDC only had the standard, soothing words for reporters. Emily shook her head. There was your standard and soothing after all.
Beth was Victim Six. She, Marie and Emily had been friends since Penn State. Blinking and swallowing tears, Emily fought to keep her composure. Marie was the dramatic one, bless her. Emily refused to show up on the news sobbing her guts out at graveside. It was bad enough running the gamut of reporters every time she tried to go somewhere. Her boss was so frustrated, he gave Emily ten paid days off just to get the media away from the company headquarters.
Women all over town were banding together. Marie stayed with her. Not lucky enough to be spared work, Marie had coworkers who helped her into her office. Emily didn’t wish this sort of death on anyone, but knew the media attention would move on when there was another victim.
Victims Seven and Eight soon followed Beth. Predictably, the creeps with cameras hounded their friends and families. The mayor held press conferences urging calm and caution. By that time, people were calling the illness the Breathless Death. Still unable to identify the cause, the CDC set up distribution centers of asthma inhalers. Not taking chances, Emily got two for Marie and for herself. One stayed in her jeans pocket at all times.
On an obscenely beautiful summer day, Emily forced herself to act like everything was normal. No one knew how the Breathless spread, so avoiding the world just made life scarier. She went to a bistro she liked and took a table outside. Sipping ice tea, she watched the world. People were jumpy. She refused to be, at least for the moment. An oasis of calm amid the uncertainty.
Her waitress appeared with her salad and another ice tea. Emily only noticed her latex gloves because they were blue, an unusual color. Her own were the basic ivory. As she picked at the avocado slices on the salad, a shadow blotted out the sun. A voice came with it. She looked up to see the man who went with the warm, friendly tone.
“I hope you won’t take this as unwelcome. I will go away if you like. It’s so nice to see someone enjoying the pretty day at my favorite café, though. Perhaps you would allow me to join you, please?”
He was nondescript, really. Off the rack suit, average everything. Still, being hit on was refreshingly normal. She smiled and gestured to a chair. “Please do. My name is Emily.”
“A pleasure, Emily. I’m Jordan,” he told her as he sat. Their conversation continued over his burger and her salad. No special laughs or memorable moments. It would have been boring at any other time. Right now, when no one else joined them on the patio, when precious few women were visible on the street, it was so normal she felt her eyes get shiny.
“I enjoyed this, Emily.” Jordan smiled as they finished their lunch. “Maybe you have time for a short walk in the park?” She glanced across the street. How better to celebrate a normal, summery day amid chaos? Her spirit revived, she slid her hand through his offered arm and laughed lightly in reply.
Funny, she didn’t notice he wasn’t wearing gloves during lunch. “I can’t see the point,” he replied when asked. “They don’t know how it’s passed and it’s only killed women.” She could hardly fault his logic.
They came to an arched bridge over a small, rocky stream. Emily breathed in the park scents, rich soil and a fragrance she could only identify as “green.” Life was here, peaceful and patient. They were quiet, each with private thoughts, as they leaned on the bridge’s wall and stared into the depths of the park.
“It’s lovely here,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “You’re lovely as well.” She turned slightly to him and smiled.
“Thank you for your company today,” she told him. “It reminded me to grab hold of each day and shake joy from it.”
Jordan reached out, smoothing hair back from her face. “I’m glad you grabbed hold and shook joy out, Emily.” His hand was warm against her cheek. His fingers trailed along her jaw line. “It is a happy ending.” He leaned in and softly brushed his lips over hers.
Emily’s chest tightened. She tried to gasp for air, but none came. He caressed her throat and smiled into her glazing eyes. His footsteps echoed in the darkness of her final moments.
© 2010 Jessica Rosen
I wrote the #storystarters which inspired this story a little while back. It was the end of the story rather than the first lines. My flash muse just loves the rich resource of #storystarters on Twitter.