Dispatch from Pemberton

It all started with Eddie Cooper. At 16, he was the youngest starting free safety on Pemberton High’s football team and a shoo-in for student body President. Many believed he was going on to play at the University of Texas, and possibly the NFL. Like most kids, Eddie believed he had the world in the palm of his hand.

That’s where it starts, in the middle of the palm.

Nobody knows where it came from, but everybody knows about it. Most people don’t think anything of it. An itch. Just one of a thousand daily annoyances.

From the palm, it slowly spreads up the arm. By the time it’s reached the wrist, most victims have scratched a hole in their hand. 85% of the victims die before it reaches the elbow, either from infection or through self-harm. They are the lucky ones.

In most cases, it reaches the shoulder inside of 96 hours. Once there, it spreads quickly through the rest of the body. Eddie Cooper lasted 48 hours before killing himself with his father’s shotgun. By that point, it is estimated that he spread it to over 50 unsuspecting classmates.

Locals say Rufus McDaniels lasted a full week before it reached his brain. By that point, doctors had amputated both arms to keep him from scratching. Depending on who you ask, they were either trying to save him or experiment on him to see what happened. Either way, it’s largely agreed that he bashed his brains out against the wall of his room.

Before the quarantine, Pemberton was your typical small town. It sits about a half hour east of Grand Forks, along Highway 2. According to the last census, it had 750 residents total. Two weeks after Eddie Cooper’s death, only 50 residents are left. And that number is dropping daily.

You won’t find the town on a map anymore. The government has done everything they can to wipe it from existence. 700 people dead in a matter of weeks, and you won’t hear about it on the news. Nobody’s allowed in or out now. The Governor isn’t calling for a State of Emergency, and you won’t hear a word about it in the Senate or Congress.

Walking through the streets of Pemberton, the silence hits you like a fist. All of the noises you take for granted in every day life, the simple background chatter of people, the hum of electricity, they’re all gone. Every footstep feels like it echoes for miles. If you do see another person, you keep your distance. Nobody knows how it spreads, and nobody wants to take the chance that they’ll get infected.

If you walk a few blocks from Pemberton High, you can find the burnt out remains of Eddie’s house. His family left shortly after the funeral. Just packed up in the middle of the night. The house was burned a few days after, during the height of the panic. The neighborhood around it sits empty. If you peek in the windows, you’ll still see some of the former residents, their hands frozen in place. Still scratching at an itch that never goes away.

There are no food shipments coming in to Pemberton anymore, not even via air drop. Any day now, the electricity will probably cut out. Nobody is sure why they don’t just bomb the city out of existence. None of us have any illusions that we’re going to make it out of here alive.

I don’t know if anyone will read this. Already, I can feel the small itch in the middle of my hand. I tell myself that it’s just a bug bite. I try to ignore it, resist the urge to scratch it. I try to not to think about Eddie Cooper. I try to forget that it starts in the middle of the palm.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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