THE WORLD WAS IN THE grip of a deadly flu pandemic. Shyloh and Aiya were at the InterFaith office recruiting members to volunteer if caution turned to crisis and a Public Health Emergency was declared.
They paused to watch a live broadcast of the Chief Medical Health Officer in charge of British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as she described the measures in place if the few diagnosed cases could not be contained.
“We have ordered the closure of all educational institutions and day care facilities and concerts, rallies and mass gatherings of any sort are prohibited until further notice,” the doctor said.
“International travel has been restricted with screening facilities established at all points of entry and we are discouraging all domestic travel as well. We advised citizens to stay home and avoid contact with others unless absolutely necessary.
“If this the situation worsens, and it can quickly, we can and will impose tracing, confinement and quarantine and have already established and equipped such centres and have the transport ready to take people to them.”
They called it The Zombie Flu because it was thought to have originated from a virus that had been preserved in the permafrost for thousand years.
Climate change was warming the Arctic at an alarming rate and thawing permafrost packed with animal and plant matter that had died thousands of years ago and froze before fully decomposing. Once this material warmed up and came in contact with sunlight and oxygen, it began to rot releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere.
This was exacerbating global warming but not only did the permafrost keep carbon from escaping it kept microbes intact. Now these pathogens were awakened and one had already infected humanity and because it hadn’t been around for a very long time human immune systems weren’t prepared. Millions in Europe and Asia had already died, so many that it some countries the delivery of essential services like fuel and food had been disrupted further compromising the health of more people who then had fallen victim to the virus.
“So far there’s only been a thirty-four confirmed cases reported in British Columbia and we’re were optimistic that the steps we’ve taken will prevent the disease from reaching the pandemic proportions it has in other parts of the world.”
“Let’s hope she’s right,’ Aiya said.
“This will further exacerbate global supply chains,” Shyloh said. In the not so distant past it had been the more profitable for multi-national corporations to pay the cost of shipping to markets while having goods produced in countries where labour was cheap and environmental standards non-existent. Now a lot of that labour was dead and imported stocks of everything including vehicle and machinery parts, electronics, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies were running out.
“This only strengthens our argument for self-sufficiency in all things,” Aiya said.
In the long term she was right if there was a long term. These last two years had seen a cascading of global catastrophes including the increase in deadly heat episodes where temperatures reached triple digits in many major urban areas and stayed there for weeks killing hundreds of thousands from heat stroke. There’d been drought and crop failure in the mid-west of North America and the monsoons, which water the rice fields that produce the majority of the calories for the world, had been late, short and not as intense.
Food riots were killing thousands, toppling governments, throwing entire society’s into chaos.
Shyloh’s cell phone ran. It was Judith.
“Taalia’s sick. My mother’s taking her to the hospital.”
“Is it the flu?”
“I’m stuck in Ottawa. They’ve stopped all domestic flights until they get a reading on the pandemic.” Judith sounded panicked, which was almost as unsettling as the information she was conveying.
“Can you drive up to Kelowna and be with her?”
“Okay, good.” Judith seemed relieved.
“I’ll leave right away.”
“Thank you, I’ll come as soon as I can get a flight out.”
“I’ll call you with updates on her condition.”
Shyloh heard a sob, then silence. “Judith?” He thought the call had been dropped.
“I won’t forget this,” she said.
Shyloh disconnected and told Aiya what was happening. He felt powerless and hated it, angry though he didn’t know at who or what and unprepared despite having no idea what could have done to be ready for such an event. Was this fear?
“I’m coming with you,” Aiya said.
Shyloh felt better–and grateful.
They arrived at the Kelowna General Hospital just after dinner.
Taalia had been placed in isolation and they had to wear protective gowns over their clothing and masks over their mouths.
Mrs. Wolfe sat near the head of the bed, she came to him when he entered.
“They called from pre-school. By the time I got her home she could hardly walk.”
He should say something comforting but Shyloh didn’t know what. Taalia lay with her head elevated on a large pillow. Her eyes were closed and sunken, pale skin flushed with fever, long blond hair pasted to her forehead with perspiration. He placed his hand on her cheek, it was hot like the sickness was burning her up inside.
“Daddy?” She’d never called him that. Right from the beginning he made it clear he was not her biological father. Shyloh said she should think of him as a friend.
“It’s Shyloh. I’m here, Taalia.” He reached down and took her tiny hand. She seemed comforted.
“Her temperature’s one hundred and three and climbing,” her grandmother said.
“What’s the doctor say?”
“Keep her hydrated.”
“Pray?” What good will that do? How many devastated parents right now were anguishing over the death of a child? Had prayer helped them? God wasn’t listening or didn’t care. Why should this child be any different?
Even though she was different–to him.
“I’ll pray with you, Mrs. Wolfe.” Aiya took her hand, they bowed their heads, and she murmured healing prayers in Muslim and Christian.
For Shyloh all the death and mayhem that was taking place in the ravaged parts of the world took on a new and terrible perspective. His emotional immunity had been breached, and no longer was he the dispassionate observer. It was happening to him and it wasn’t interesting it was horrible, painful, unimaginable.
How could life change in an instant to become not worth living? That’s how he felt, that life without this child would be unbearable.
Aiya handed him a tissue. “You’re crying.”
“Hello, I’m Dr. Singh.” A young man entered the room and went to the patient. He slipped a thermometer between Taalia’s lips. While he waited for the results he lifted a limp wrist and took her pulse then pulled down the blanket and pressed a stethoscope to the child’s chest. It heaved with irregular breaths.
“How is she, Dr. Singh?” Shyloh said.
“The disease hits hard and fast; a high fever accompanied by severe congestion with difficulty breathing as the virus attacks the lungs.”
“The next few hours are critical. If she can stave off pneumonia, she should be better in a few days.”
“What are her chances of doing that?” Shyloh wanted answers.
“And if she contracts pneumonia?”
“This strain, more than any other I’ve seen, has the ability to overwhelm the immune system and enter the bloodstream spreading the virus and its toxins throughout the entire body. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” the doctor said. “It’s just as likely she won’t get pneumonia and she’ll have a complete recovery.”
“Of course,” Aiya said. She appeared eager to end the conversation.
“But if not, septicaemia is very serious is it not?” Shyloh said. Not having all the information would not prevent it from happening, besides without it he wouldn’t know the best course of action.
“When this occurs blood pressure drops, the heart weakens, and the patient spirals toward septic shock followed by multiple organ failure.”
Mrs. Wolf gasped, as if mentioning the word somehow gave it permission to happen.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Taalia dies.”
Dr. Singh was being paged. “I must go. Our worst case fears about the pandemic are being realized.”
“Is there anything we can do?” There was no best course of action, except perhaps to plead.
The doctor looked at his watch. “Take her temperature every half hour.” He went to the side table and took a thermometer out of the drawer. “If it goes above one hundred and four, give her a sponge bath using lukewarm water. I’ll get a nurse to bring you what you need.”
The doctor left and Aiya and Shyloh took up their respective positions on either side of the bed.
“Why don’t you go home, Mrs. Wolfe?” Aiya said. “You look exhausted and we don’t want you getting sick.”
“No, I’ll stay.”
“Of course, but it might be better if we each get some rest, spell each other off,” Aiya said. “It could take a while before she improves.”
Mrs. Wolfe agreed. Shyloh asked her to try to get through to Judith. Cellphone networks were overwhelmed, and he’d given up trying.
Shyloh took his daughter’s hand and placed it in his. Aiya stroked her cheek and hummed a lullaby.
Time passed. A nurse brought a large sponge and bowl and hospital staff set up a cot parallel to the bed. At about midnight Aiya laid down and fell asleep.
Shyloh dosed sitting up. At two in the morning he jolted awake. Taalia’s arms and legs were jerking, white frothy saliva was leaking from the corners of her mouth and her fair skin was the color of a bruise.
“Aiya.” Shyloh pressed the call button.
“Taalia’s having a seizure.”
“What’s her temperature?”
“I was just about to take it. Where’s the nurse?”
“I’ll go get help.”
Taalia seemed to choking so Shyloh pulled the pillow away and turned her on her side. Saliva drained from her mouth and her breathing improved. The twitching and jerking stopped. Her color was returning to normal when Aiya rushed back in the room.
“No one’s available.”
“She’s okay, it’s over.”
“Alhamdulillaah.” Aiya started to weep.
“Go back outside, wash your hands and return with the mask over your mouth,” Shyloh said.
When Aiya returned Shyloh had filled the plastic bowl with tepid water. “She needs a sponge bath.”
“What’s her temperature?”
“We don’t need a reading to know it’s too high. Here. take a sponge.”
The seizures returned near dawn followed by another sponge bath. Taalia seemed no better, no worse, but Shyloh could feel her slipping deeper and further away, her life’s energy dissipating.
Why had one small life become so important? The millions of other people dying, many just like this child, in other parts of the world hadn’t moved Shyloh. A human die off could be considered a good thing, especially for those who survived. It meant less competition for diminishing resources.
As a child, his way of coping with his mother’s murder was to carry on her work to bring about a better world so she would be proud of him, so others wouldn’t suffer as he had. He’d formed the Triumvirate when he’d seen a greater potential to accomplish this objective by channeling the amazing talents of Aiya and Judith.
But the goal of achieving a better civilization was becoming the challenge of surviving the end of it. Fulfilling the pledge to his mother might become secondary to providing and protecting a haven for his people, his tribe, his family, Taalia.
It had all come down to her. If she died why bother?
About noon the following day Shyloh left Taalia’s bedside to get some food for him and Aiya. The elevators weren’t working, so he started down the three flights of stairs to the lobby that housed several concessions.
When he pushed open the fire door it banged into a gurney.
“Help me,” whispered a frail, elderly man too weak to lift his head from a soiled pillow.
They had turned the lobby of hospital into a triage centre. Similar gurney’s lined the walls as medical staff scurried from one to another. Armed guards were restricting entry at the front doors while dozens of new arrivals either sat outside on the curb or laid on the grass waiting to be processed or die, whichever came first.
Shyloh found a canteen, waited in line and was given two peanut butter sandwiches.
After assuring security his daughter was a patient, they allowed him return to her room.
“Hi.” Taalia was sitting up in bed, smiling.
Shyloh stared at the frail youngster and the surge of joy made him dizzy. He’d been spared, and he a powerful need to express gratitude, to give thanks, but to whom, to what?
“Look at you,” he said.
“Are those for me?” Taalia eyed the sandwiches.
Shyloh handed her one.
“Little bites,” Aiya said. “We don’t want it to upset your stomach.” Aiya passed Shyloh a tissue.
“Why are you crying, Shy?” Taalia said.
“It’s nothing,” he said. He missed her calling him Daddy.
“What happened?” Shyloh said to Aiya as Taalia devoured the sandwich. When he’d left an hour ago, he wasn’t sure she’d be alive when he returned.
“She chose life.”
“As opposed to what?”
“Paradise.” Aiya’s conviction was palpable. At that moment Shyloh longed for that faith, that certainty. Good luck wasn’t cutting it.
“I’ve talked to the nurse, and she’s preparing the discharge papers,” Aiya said. “They need the bed.”
“What did Dr. Singh say.”
The nurse came in with the documents. “Both of you could still get sick, symptoms may not show up for a week. You need to go home and avoid contact with others, quarantine yourselves. Can you do that?”
“Yes.” Shyloh couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. He signed the papers.
“Taalia will be weak and likely sleep a lot for a few days. Keep her well hydrated.”
“Do all patients recover this quickly,” Shyloh said. “It’s almost seems like a miracle.”
“Yes. You’re either dead in a day or better in two or three.”
“How bad is it?”
“Let’s just say you’re better off taking your chances at home than coming back here.”
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