It is the year 2047 and twenty-five-years-old Tennessee Murray has realized his ambition to teach and his dream of publishing a book. He is preparing to marry the love of his life and things couldn’t be better.
Then one morning he steps out into foggy weather and finds the world has taken a turn for the extremely bad.
In a matter of minutes, half the population of Earth dies in a horrible fashion. It’s not an ultimate war or biological disaster, and no oversized meteorite hit the planet or any other such catastrophe.
It is sudden, it is deadly, and it is inexplicable.
Seven and a half years later, Tennessee, now a tracker in a diminished world that is limping along, sets out to find a missing young woman and makes a discovery that sheds light on the longstanding mystery. He also learns that a finale is in store for the remaining peoples of Earth.
Could the fate of the world hinge on the actions of an ex-middle school English teacher?
“YOU NEED TO TAKE A BREAK, TENN. YOU’RE going to get eyestrain.”
I looked up from my laptop and smiled at Zoni standing there in her short black and white clingy nightshirt that barely covered anything. She was tiny but she had curves and knew how to use them to make my interest rise. She was holding a coffee mug in one hand and her other hand rested on one of those delectable curves.
“I’m okay, baby, I just want to get a couple of chapters done.”
“Here, take this and relax. You’ve been at that for hours.”
I sighed. “I know, I know, but I want to get as much finished as I can before the wedding.” I grinned as I swung my chair around from the small fold-up table I called my desk. “We’re going to be way too busy afterward.” I pulled my cute and sexy lady onto my lap as she set the mug beside my pencil holder.
I held her, thinking back over the last three years since I’d graduated with a bachelor’s in education, a desire to teach, and a dream of someday being a published writer. I mused on my incredible luck at having found her in the middle of all of that.
I met her at a cookout the summer after my first year as a middle school English teacher.
“Meet Zoni Avery,” said our mutual friend, Lauren as she handed us glasses of something alcoholic. “She teaches music at the new school of the arts.”
I smiled down at the petite, cute, high school music teacher as I took the glass from Lauren. I didn’t believe in love at first sight. That’s usually lust or at least it was for me, but the instant attraction I felt on meeting Zoni was different. It was more of a connection and it made me a believer because I fell into her big beautiful brown eyes and something on a deep level inside said, “This is it. This is the one”.
“Zoni, meet Tennessee Murray, he teaches English.”
Zoni looked up at me with those big brown eyes - and laughed.
Someone called Lauren’s name and she said, “Uh-oh, gotta go guys. Somebody wants my services. You two talk to each other. Grab yourselves something to eat from the stack on the counter. I’ll be back.” She took off for the gazebo at the bottom of the yard.
I raised an eyebrow at this woman I’d just met who seemed to find my name so amusing.
“Um, is my name that funny?”
Shaking her head, she grinned and said, “Oh, no, it just that… well, everyone calls me Zoni but my name is actually Arizona.”
Okay. I saw it then, and had to crack a grin of my own.
Then, as her eyes danced mischievously, she said, “Furthermore, my little sister Minnie’s name is Minnesota.”
It was getting good. I chuckled. “I have an older sister whom we call Missy. Can you guess her name?”
She stared at me, unsure if I was putting her on. Then she said, “It wouldn’t be Mississippi would it?”
“Bingo. Hey, you got it right off.” I laughed as she almost spit out her drink.
“For real?” she asked trying not to strangle. “I just said that because I thought you were messing with me!”
I grinned. “Nope, no kidding. Her name is Mississippi.”
“What are the odds? Here we are just meeting, and both have parents that saw fit to name their kids for states!” she said shaking her head.
We laughed about it and spent the rest of the evening together, shooing away Lauren when she came back.
She was from Baltimore and was surprised that I was born in Charlotte. “You don’t sound like a Southerner,” she said.
“My parents are from Jamaica, thus my less than Southern accent. But I can speak Southern.”
“Show me,” she said, and laughed when I demonstrated I could drawl with the best when I wanted to.
She had a wonderful laugh and used it a lot.
I told her I was an aspiring writer but that teaching was my first love. She loved to sing but was as dedicated to the profession as I was. She’d also just completed her first year of teaching and was looking forward to the next, and she’d started online classes to get her master’s in education, which was the same thing I’d done. I asked her for a date and things progressed from there. We were as good for each other as I somehow knew we would be. She encouraged my writing while I encouraged her singing.
I snapped back to the present when Zoni leaned into me and planted her hands on either side of my face. She stared into my eyes. “Tenn, the way you’re going, you’ll be dead tired by our wedding day, and too worn-out to enjoy our honeymoon cruise. I know you want to finish the book, Hon, and I want you to finish, but you also need to rest. We’re going to be gone for four glorious weeks of cruising and touring all over the Caribbean, and visiting--”
I brought her lips to mine, cutting her off. When she finally pulled back, she smiled, forming those perfect little dimples in her smooth, chocolate cheeks. I licked both, something that always made her giggle, and then gazed into her eyes. She made a good argument. I could hop back on it the next day while she was gone to pick up her wedding dress.
She said it was bad luck for the groom to see the dress before the wedding so she was taking it to Shantel’s place, her best friend and maid-of-honor, and it would stay there for the next four days.
Shantel was going with her to pick up the dress, and I knew she and Zoni would get into a gabfest, especially since the other bridesmaids were going to meet up with them. I’d have plenty of time to finish those two chapters. Besides, with her on my lap, I knew I was finished writing for the night. I picked up the coffee mug and took a sip.
I shot up an eyebrow. “Hey, this is wine.”
She laughed at my expression. “Of course it is, silly. Did you think I was going to give you coffee this time of night?” Smiling, she added in that sultry voice she knew would weaken my already feeble will when it came to her, “I’d never get you to bed if I did that.”
I glanced at the clock on the nightstand: one-oh-eight. I hadn’t realized it was that late. I tended to lose track of time when writing.
The fall before I met Zoni, I’d joined a writing group, and Adam Jones, also a teacher and one of the group members who’d written and published a number of childrens books, read one of my short stories.
“This is good, Tenn,” he said smiling as he finished. “With some expansion, I think it would make for a great adventure novel.” He looked up at me. “I’m serious, give it a shot.”
He’d been in the business for a while - about twenty years - and I guessed he should know. In addition, I’d learned he helped a couple of other writers.
I was encouraged but uncertain if I’d have the time. “Well, I’m pretty busy. I’d have to squeeze writing into my spare time.”
Adam grinned. “Welcome to the world of writers, my boy. If we have a day job, we all have to squeeze it in.”
So I squeezed, and finished a first draft and Adam helped me get beta readers. They assured me it was certain to be a hit with the middle school crowd. Acting as my agent, he got me in with his small but professional publishing company.
They said my book was the sort of thing for which they were looking, so with Adam’s help and that of a good editor, the year after I met Zoni, I realized my dream of becoming a published author. I was thrilled, she was thrilled for me, and it made my day when several of my students mentioned how much they enjoyed the story.
No, it didn’t set the world on fire, but according to the publisher, the sales were decent for a first-time novelist and would get better once I built a following. They suggested I begin writing a sequel. I had doubts about having the time between teaching and everything involved with that, and doing book signings while continuing to work on my master’s degree, but with Zoni’s encouragement, I carved out time in which to write a little every night.
Sometimes I went a bit overboard.
I drained the mug and stood up, keeping her in my arms. “You know, you’re awfully smart, my lady. It’s definitely time for bed.”
She laughed again as she slid her arms around my neck and wrapped her legs around my waist. She wriggled her behind against my arms. “I know. I also know your interest is steadily rising.”
I chuckled as I carried her from the corner of our bedroom that served as my office, and laid her on the bed. She was shucking the nightshirt as I began peeling out of my clothes…
The year before, with my book published and me diving into writing the sequel, between my job and working on my master’s, I was busy, but I was also in love, so on the first anniversary of the day we met, I proposed, and Zoni said yes.
We set a date for June 30th of the next year because, she said, “It’s romantic and by then it will be exactly two years since we met.” She also had a practical side and she added on a serious note, “Waiting a year will give us time to save for the wedding and fabulous honeymoon I want, without having to go into too much debt, Tenn. Besides, I don’t want my parents to feel as though they have to help pick up the tab. They’ve done so much for me already by helping me pay for college, and don’t forget, they’re trying to save for Minnie’s college, too. They’d have to go into debt for it and that would be too big a strain on them.”
That was Zoni - so loving and considerate. Moreover, I understood. Neither of us came from a rich family. My parents did the same for my sister and me. Besides, we would have our masters out of the way by then.
She got no argument from me when she decided to give up the more expensive apartment she had and move into the small, two-rooms-with-a-bath affair I’d finally been able to rent halfway through my first year of teaching. It was in an old apartment building that wasn’t first-rate or in the best part of town, but the rent was cheaper than what she was paying even though she had a roommate, so, we’d be able to save more. She put us on a strict budget and was diligent about it. It worked. We actually managed to avoid having to go into debt at all. We saved enough to pay for everything.
By the time Zoni got back home from her get-together with her maid-of-honor and bridesmaids, I had not only finished the two chapters on which I’d been working, I even managed to complete a third. I was eager to finish the manuscript as my first book had finally picked up in popularity and sales, and the publisher advised me that they wanted the sequel ready to release the following spring.
They’d put a grin on my face the previous week by sending me a much fatter than usual royalty check. Zoni and I celebrated by looking at real estate brochures. With bigger royalty checks and higher pay because of the master degrees, we’d be able to get that condo we’d put on our wish list. In one of the brochures, Zoni liked the ones going up in a two-year old subdivision called Blue Heaven. We planned to check them out when we returned from our honeymoon.
The new book was coming along nicely so even with taking off for four weeks, I was on track to have the first draft finished by the time school started up at the end of August. Since I wouldn’t be quite as busy as I’d been for the last year, I would have a decently proofed and edited draft ready to send off to my beta readers by October, and by December - January at the latest - the final editing, proofing, and rewrites could begin. I was confident it would be ready to publish on time.
I would’ve taken Zoni out to dinner when she got home that evening, but she insisted on cooking. She made one of my favorite meals - spicy jerk chicken with red beans and rice. As I sat across from her at our small table, she chuckled as she watched me eat.
“I love it when you demolish my cooking with that kind of passion. I’m gonna have to make this more often.”
I grinned and nodded, mouth too full to speak, and I mused on the fact that in addition to having a great family, wonderful friends, a challenging and interesting job, and realizing my dream of publishing, I was engaged to the most incredible woman in the world. Everything was falling into place and the future was bright. Things could only get better.
The next day was Thursday, June 27, 2047. It was three days before our wedding, and sometime after six a.m., the world went to shit.
A WHISPER OF SOUND AWAKENED ME, OR perhaps it was some subliminal thought, maybe an unremembered dream. I didn’t have anywhere to be that morning, so it wasn’t my alarm as I hadn’t set it. But, I suppose that’s not important.
I shifted around and stretched out an arm feeling for Zoni, and struck emptiness. That meant she was up and either in the bathroom or in the kitchen. The semi-lit room was silent. Usually, wherever she was she’d be singing, but that morning she wasn’t. I turned over and swung an eye to the clock. Five after six. I ran a hand over my face and sat up in the rumpled bed. I draped my legs over the side.
“Zoni? Hey, baby, you in the bathroom?” There was no answer but the bathroom light wasn’t on so I went in and did my morning thing, wondering why my girl wasn’t singing. I came out and pulled on my pajama bottoms just in case somebody had dropped by the apartment. It was early but it had happened before. I once elicited a shriek from one of Zoni’s friends that way.
In a few steps, I pulled open the bedroom door and looked out into our combo livingroom/ kitchen. It was empty.
Then I noticed the chain latch on the door was hanging down. Perhaps someone actually had come by, and Zoni took them out into the hall because she hadn’t wanted to wake me. Or take a chance on me stepping from the bedroom with my assets hanging out. I walked over and gripped the knob, not surprised at finding it locked. I thumbed off the latch and stuck my head out prepared to tease her for locking herself out again.
The hall was empty.
Closing the door, I scratched my head. It wasn’t like her to leave without telling me, especially so early in the morning. Then, I spotted the note under her Bigfoot magnet on our small fridge: “We’re out of bacon, Hon. Gone to Quick Mart, back in a few. Love ya!” She always used the Bigfoot magnet to leave notes for me. It was her joke - she’d teased me about the size of my feet from the time she first saw them. She put her size five next to my size fourteen and cracked up. Said one of my shoes was big enough for her to bathe in. There was a little brown elf magnet on there, too - my allusion to her diminutive size.
I smiled. My woman. She knew how much I loved my bacon in the morning.
The store opened at six and it was a few minutes after, so she hadn’t been gone long. That meant I had time to meet her before she got back because the Quick Mart was only a block down the street. Even if she’d gotten there as it was opening, she wouldn’t have started back yet. She could never go in and pick up just one thing; she’d cruise the aisles for other items every time.
Perhaps we could grab a cup of coffee at the little shop next door and she wouldn’t have to fool around with our sometimey coffee maker, which brought on cussing when, as she put it, “It just sits there smirking at me!”
I went back to the bedroom and threw on sweat pants, a tee shirt, and my sneakers. I stuck my cellphone in a pocket then glanced at the unmade bed hesitating. Last one out had to make the bed and Zoni would be pissed if I left it. I pulled up the sheets but decided to finish as soon as we got back. I grinned. Maybe I could convince her to climb back in with me for a few minutes since we had the morning free. I meandered back through the living room and noticed she’d not opened the curtain on our lone window in the room.
She loved it that our apartment was on an outer wall and that there was a side window through which there was a view of the park trees three blocks away and the tops of the uptown skyscrapers. When I’d mentioned that only the very tops were visible, she said, “Well, it may not be that great but it beats the view we get from our bedroom window!”
That was the red brick wall of the apartment building behind ours. I had to concede that she had a point.
Usually, the first thing she did in the morning was draw back the curtains and admire the view, but I supposed she had getting bacon on her mind and ducked out without doing it. I went over and pulled the curtains apart.
I blinked at the thick mist outside. With such a heavy fog, it would be hard to see. Now why would she go out in that, I wondered, bacon wasn’t that important.
Hoping she’d done her usual aisle cruise and was still at the store, I fished out my cellphone to tell her to wait for me.
“Call Zoni”, I said to the phone. It didn’t ring. I frowned and peered at it. “No signal indicated” was flashing at the top. That was unusual as I’d always been able to get good reception in the apartment. Annoyance edged its way into my mind and intermingled with a small finger of - not quite worry but more of a tinge of unease. I didn’t want her walking back in that murk alone.
I spun around and made my way out the door. I didn’t want to wait on the creaky, too-slow elevators so I dipped to the stairwell.
The lights flickered as I clattered down the three flights to the lobby. They steadied but as I reached the bottom and stepped out, they flickered again and then went all the way out enveloping the lobby in a gray gloom. I stopped and looked up. All the lights were out; even the little one between the two elevators was gone.
I stood there for a moment then shrugged and started across to the front door. Probably the rotten wiring in the building had struck again. The lights had taken a dive before. The landlord kept promising to get the problem fixed but was dragging his feet about it.
From behind me came footsteps and a voice. “Damn!”
I turned and Dave, one of our first floor neighbors, emerged from the hall. A frown had his bushy, gray-flecked eyebrows bunched together and resembling a brown and white wooly worm hanging over his eyes.
“Morning, Dave. Have we been visited by the lights-out fairy again?” I asked.
He peered at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Hey, Tenn. Yeah, looks that way. They went out as I was coming down the hall.” He heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Well, it’s not the first time. They’ll likely pop back on soon.” He glanced toward the lobby window. “I was going out for a jog before it starts heating up but, uh, that fog looks pretty heavy. Believe I’ll wait ‘til it lifts. Wasn’t anything on the weather report about it but they aren’t always right, you know.”
“True, but that’s why I’m going out. Zoni went to the Quick Mart to pick up something and I don’t want her wandering around alone in this, so I’m going to meet her. We’ll be right back.”
I peered through the glass in the door. I couldn’t make out the lamp pole at the sidewalk but even through the fog, I should’ve been able to see the glow from its light and I didn’t. That would mean it was out and with the fog being so dense, it should’ve been on.
“Hey, Dave, I don’t think it’s only the building this time. Looks like the street lights are out, too.” I started through the door but then it struck me that somebody should call the power company. Letting the door swing back shut, I stopped and pulled out my cellphone. Still no signal. It was annoying, but I knew Dave’s apartment was equipped with an old-fashioned landline, so I said, “My phone’s not getting reception but landlines should be working. Call the power company. Someone going too fast in this mess could’ve hit a power pole somewhere.”
He nodded and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Okay.” He shook his head as he headed back towards his apartment, muttering, “Some folk just won’t slow down for nothing. Damned fools…”
Pushing through the door, I paused on the small porch for a moment, frowning. It was cooler than I’d thought it would be, though, with the fog blocking the sun, I supposed that was to be expected. One would think it would’ve been humid or damp but there was no hint of moisture in the air, and I guess fogs don’t always swirl but this one was sitting out there rock steady, as if someone had dropped a solid sheet of gray down on the world.
Feeling as though there were a film on my eyes, I blinked and gave in to the urge to rub them, which of course didn’t help. I glanced up. I could see a marginally lighter patch in the east where rays from the morning sun were losing their battle to break through. The rest of the sky was an overall even gray.
A sense of wrongness tugged at me and my anxiety level rose. Zoni wouldn’t have gone out in that. It must’ve been a fast mover that came up after she got to the Quick Mart. I considered that she may have tried to call and hadn’t been able to reach me, and was already on her way back. I needed to get moving.
I hustled down the steps and out into the haze, barely able to see two feet ahead. A little more and I would’ve needed a cane to find my way through. I got across the front parking lot and out to the sidewalk only knowing I’d reached it when the lamppost appeared in front of me. I veered in the direction of the store a block away. Glancing around, I couldn’t see much; the buildings were merely dark blobs. I’d have to be careful not to step off the sidewalk and into the street or actually run into and knock Zoni down if she was on her way back.
It was around six-twenty, about fifteen minutes since I awakened, and though most folk were probably still pulling themselves from bed or preparing for work, there were usually a few out for an early morning jog or walking the dog. But, if anyone else was out and about, I didn’t hear them and I definitely couldn’t see them. I didn’t hear any barking dogs, either, and normally there would be at least one out there yapping. It was dead quiet. Too quiet, even for that early in the morning. It was a bit strange that I also wasn’t hearing any traffic. I shrugged. Likely, it was due to the heavy fog. Not many would want to venture out into it and I thought perhaps it was muffling the usual morning noises.
I didn’t run into Zoni, but I almost fell off the curb when I got to the corner, barely managing to stop in time. I looked up towards the traffic light. Couldn’t see it but since I saw no red, orange, or green winking at me from above, I knew it was dead, too. I peered through the mist trying to make out the store across the street but it appeared the power outage extended into the next block and all I saw was a faint blur slightly darker than the fog.
I got to the building and pulled open the door. Inside was full of shadows, but I could see no one was at the front checkout counter. A trickle of worry inched into my mind. Shouldn’t anybody in the store be at the front? Perhaps commenting about the fog or complaining to each other about the power outage? Then, I shook my head. I was getting paranoid. The clerk had likely gone to the back to call the power company, and with it being early, there wouldn’t be many customers. Maybe they’d gone with him, and perhaps Zoni was in the ladies room.
“Hello? Where’s everybody?”
There was no answer. The place felt empty and my sense that something wasn’t quite right ratcheted up. I stretched my eyes trying to force them to see better in the darkened, quiet interior, wishing I had a flashlight. Then I remembered I did - on my phone. It wasn’t getting reception but I didn’t need a signal to work the light. I flicked it on.
“Zoni? Where are you babes?” I hadn’t run into her on the way there, so she had to be in the store. But I got no answer.
I started toward the back, and out the corner of my eye, I caught movement to the left. I swung in that direction. At the aisle next to the long ceiling to floor window that formed the wall on the side, I got an impression of a shadowy outline.
“Zoni?” It came out softly from my suddenly dry throat.
The back of my neck prickled but I had to find her so I went over and turned to shine my light down the aisle. Nothing. The half-seen figure must have been on the other side of the window and it had appeared to be nearly my height, too tall to be Zoni. Or perhaps it had not been there at all.
Unease beat at me. If Zoni wasn’t in the store, that would be troubling because where else would she be? I headed down the aisle, and made a right, intending to bypass the next one and go knock on the ladies’ room door. My foot hit something slippery causing me to slide and almost fall. Startled, I aimed my light at the floor. A dark liquid was seeping in from somewhere and puddling at the bottom of the aisle. It was hard to tell with the little phone light but it looked like transmission fluid. Or blood.
The prickle in my neck expanded and ran down my back. I moved my light along the floor. A rivulet from up the aisle snaked down to the puddle. I froze when the narrow beam came to rest on something lying a few feet away. My heart sped up as I started forward. Avoiding stepping in the liquid, I inched up on the still form.
Horror slithered into my mind as I found myself looking down into the pasty face and fixed eyes of the clerk who always opened up the place in the morning and manned the front counter.
His unattached head lay at an angle to his body and his body was in four pieces.