The reason why the virus went undetected for so long was because it was indistinguishable from the common cold.
And because of that, the human population was wiped out. Almost entirely.
On the first day of infection, the host would usually complain of a sore throat and a runny nose. Unfortunately, the liquid running from the nose of the host was their own liquidised brain and the sore throat was the oesophagus hermetically sealing itself and killing the host in 80% of circumstances.
But if you were a member of the 20% of the population who managed to stop their throat from closing with a splint or a self-performed tracheotomy then you were part of the 20% who died from brain leakage.
Billions died. Absolutely everyone, completely, entirely with the exception of perhaps 0.00001% of the global population who were curiously immune.
So, seven hundred people.
Among those people: Jeff Higgs. He wasn’t a rich man. Or a celebrity. He wasn’t even married and had no children. He was a simple twenty five year old man with severe learning difficulties, and worked as a cleaner in a shopping mall.
There were two scientists, three literary scholars and even a NASCAR driver who survived among the seven hundred along with other figures.
But there was also Jeff.
Jeff the Cleaner.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
It started off just like a normal day. Jeff had his cornflakes with milk, packed his uniform and lunch pail and walked to work. He failed to notice the empty streets, devoid of cars or other people.
Jeff Higgs was a man who was often caught up in his own little internal world and failed to see the world around him.
Sometimes he’d be running his mop across the floor with his headphones in whilst older folk were prodding him to try and ask him where the loos were. Or just staring off into space for ten minutes at a time.
When he arrived, he was a little scared. He tried to call his parents on the mobile phone with large buttons and a simplistic interface, but the call went through. He told himself they had gone out to work, as they often did, and made a mental note to himself to call later.
He meandered through the mall, slowly making his way towards the little office cubicle located above the avenues of shops and little booths. He avoid those that were lying on the floor, whilst wondering why they’d fallen asleep.
He tripped over a dead shopper and cursed. He yelled down at the dead woman to not be so selfish and rude.
The woman didn’t reply, and remained dead.
He climbed the stairs towards the office block to sign on for the start of the janitorial day and checked his phone. He noticed he was two minutes late, and a panic started to rise up in his stomach.
The door to the central security office was wide open and Jodi Patel was lying on the floor. She coughed sputum, barely able to talk.
“Why are you lying on the floor, boss?”
The security manager and head of operations smiled up at him weakly. She’d always had a soft spot for Jeff, a diligent worker despite his learning difficulties. She also felt a little smidgen of pity for the man. After all, he was picked on and teased by skating teenagers almost daily.
“Just feeling a little run down, Jeff. Nothing to worry about.”
With a little difficulty, she pressed a shaking hand into the pocket of her denim skirt, fumbled around between her keyloop and glasses case, and she pulled out a small shining object and pressed it into his palm.
“Now Jeff, we’ve got a bit of a problem here. You might need to take charge.”
“Well gosh. I’m only used to cleaning up spills aren’t I?”
Jodi smiled. “I’m sure. But you have ambition, don’t you? You’re willing to go the distance? Then you need to take control of the-
She coughed violently, almost unable to get the words out. Her head felt as if it had been filled with acid and her throat had become the size of a pinhole.
Jeff watched as Jodi coughed again, his eyes wide with fear.
“You’re in charge now, Jeff. So you need to make sure everything keeps running smoothly. And make sure the tiles just outside of JD Sports are clean. I saw some…. stains on…. the–“
Jodi slipped away. Her lifeless doe eyes stared up at Jeff. He stared back with almost the same expression.
“What does ambition mean?”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Time passed. Twenty years of time, as the world gradually healed. The seven hundred people managed to find each other. They developed agriculture, they managed to slowly develop. In twenty years, the seven hundred had become nine hundred.
And then, miraculously, the miracle of the internet that was ultimately immune to disease allowed the remnants of humanity to connect.
To propagate the population, mild harems were obviously formed. Defences were formed against the returning wildlife. Wolves that hunted in the night as mankind slowly clambered back from the brink of extinction in strange and straggling steps.
Candles and torches. Cars and horses. E-mail and letters.
Twenty more years and the population had double to one thousand and eight hundred. Twenty more and humanity was making a slow recovery, with almost all children born immune to virus that had killed so many. Some sad cases perished, but there were thankfully few of them.
So sixty years went by. And three thousand and six hundred people lived.
There were small sects and tribes dedicated to finding old technology and canned edibles. It was a fairly attractive option to join a tribe because of the relatively fair barter system of sexual activity, cigarettes, alcohol and clean cotton socks.
Geriatrics often proclaimed that the new civilisation without banks, debt and social convention was better than the one that had been culled, even if it did come at the expense of cable television, some creature comforts and indoor living. The youth didn’t believe them.
Pre-virus cash was more of less useless. It became toilet paper. And that was part of the argument that Chieftain Thomas-2 gave to the people of his small village over the campfire one night.
“We not need to search the mall, Mark-1.” said the chieftain. “Both Anthony-3 and John-3 agree t’would be best concentrate our efforts towards forest.”
He prodded the fire with a wooden staff, covered in ceremonial broken car key fobs. His necklace of ring pulls rattled in the cold night wind. “It all money in the old malls. No good food left, as even cans past their expiration date, yes? Fah! We will hunt fresh meat. Rabbits. Deer.”
Anthony-3 and John-3, both young lads not yet able to grow facial hair, nodded their heads sagely at the words of their chieftain.
“Money no good.” intoned Anthony-3. “Make shit fire, yes. Wood better.”
Thomas-2 grunted in agreement.
Mark-1 stood up. He shouldered the deerskin pack next to his ankles and strode off through the woods and down the hills, away from the three men sitting around the bright orange fire, before they had a chance to speak.
He could make out the rather bland cinderblock in the distance that was the small shopping centre in what used to be one of the more popular suburban towns along with three flickering lights in a few of the neighbouring roads. A solitary person or a streetlamp that hadn’t yet burnt itself out. The rest of the houses were most likely hollow. Dead.
Moss had overgrown the sign welcoming motorists to the small town, so Mark-1 had no idea what the town had once been called. But all things considered, it didn’t really matter.
Back on the hillside, the chieftain and his two charges were passing a bong between them. The chieftain bubbled the waters and passed it along. “Mark-1 no understand. Maybe just needs walk. Probably annoyed about John-3 eating him peanut butter powerbar. You are dildoman, John-3.””
Anthony-3 choked in the middle of ripping the bong.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The mall was deserted. As Mark-1 walked past the abandoned storefronts, he saw a wizened old man sitting on one of the mall benches. He was wearing orange scrubs, wringing out a mop into a bucket of filthy water. Most of the cloth strands had fallen off, and so it was a pretty pitiful mop.
Jeff looked up at Mark-1 through his rheumy eyes. He grinned a toothy grin.
“Friend! Welcome!” he cried. “To the Owenstown Mall!”
He threw his arms out as if announcing Mark-1’s entry to The Garden of Eden. Somewhere above him, twelve pigeons took flight. A girder creaked and something scurried across the floor nearby.
Mark-1 was puzzled by the man, who looked as if he was hitting a hundred. Every man he’d ever met, from his generation onward, had worn green camouflage and carried a weapon.
This man, this remnant, was wearing bright orange and carrying a mop. He’d heard of mops, but he’d never seen one.
The man gripped his hand and pulled him, vicelike, across the mall. For some reason, this old man had incredibly muscly arms.
When Mark-1 was lead around a corner, his mouth fell open and he started to get a good idea of why his arms were so muscly.
The few shops near the end of the mall were pristine. There was a small Subway, a Jewellers and an Urban Outfitters next to a photo booth.
Jeff excitedly motioned for Mark-1 to step into the Subway and disappeared through a door off to the side.
Mark-1 walked into the Subway. Muzak played over the speakers, the singer of some pop band from the world that was lost was crooning about riding in a car with his girl.
Mark-1 put his hand to his belt. He didn’t know what was happening, but the almost immaculate end of the mall could only mean one thing. Habitation. People.
His hand met the grip of a sharpened pike made of wood. Mark-1 gritted his teeth and steeled himself. Clearly, this was a sick cult of cannibals that operated out of a pre-virus food joint called “Subway” and any minute now a group of raiders would-
“Italian bread! Our weekly special!” announced Jeff, with a grin. “Has been for as long as I can remember, so it must be good!” Mark-1 hadn’t heard him walk through the back entrance and move behind the counter with a crate of freshly baked ciabatta loaves and almost jumped out of his skin.
Jeff began to order the loaves in the pristine chiller and then began to lay out metal canteens filled with chicken, crab meat, sweetcorn, salad, tomatoes and pastrami slices. He beamed up at Mark-1. “What can I get for you?”
“A sandwich?” said Jeff, suddenly unsure. “This is a sandwich shop.”
“Oh. I’ll have the, uh, chicken on the……”
Mark-1 squinted at a strange pre-virus menu. “the rye.”
Jeff the Subway guy bit his lower lip, pouting. “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m so so sorry.”
His eyes brimmed with tears.
“There’s none of the rye left. The rats got it. I can look under the skirting board and see if there’s any but it probably isn’t very hygienic.”
By the time he got halfway through his sentence, tears were already running down his face. “I’m a terrible sandwich artist.”
“No, no!” said Mark-1, trying to sound encouraging. He wanted this odd and old little man to be happy, and felt a strange sense of pity well up from deep within him. “I’ll have the… uh… Italian… Hearts…
“The Hearty Italian?!” yelled Jeff, brightening instantly. “An excellent choice, good sir!”
After Jeff prepared the sandwich with sincere love and care, squinting down at the sandwich bar and biting his gumline when oh so carefully running three fat lines of barbecue sauce across the chicken.
“That’ll be three ninety five!” said Jeff. “Would you like a drink and a cookie?”
“Yes please.” said Mark-1.
Jeff put a paper cup under a drink dispenser and pressed the button with the friendly Coca-Cola logo adorned on the front. The machine whirred and screeched as the ancient mechanisms inside the prehistoric machine went to work.
The drink machine shook violently, made a few more dying mechanical noises and dumped a wedge of dripping black congealed sludge into the cup.
Jeff cried. Mark-1 spoke up.
“Just one from the cooler would be fine.”
Jeff turned to him, his eyes shining in hope. “A-are you sure, sir? Really?”
“Yeah sure whatever.”
Jeff cheered out loud and whistled happily as he took a glass bottle and propped it on the counter. He pulled a pair of faded pink oven mitts and took out a tray of cookies from an oven next to him.
He checked a label and ditched half the batch into the bin.
Mark-1 almost screamed out loud, but managed to control himself. Food had always been scarce in the post-virus world and here was an old dithery man ditching almost an entire pan of cookies into the bin? Still, there had to be a rational explanation.
“Rotten?” asked Mark-1.
Jeff shook his head sadly. “They go stale at midday. Company policy.”
He took of his apron and disappeared into the backroom.
Mark-1 chewed his sandwich and sipped his coke. He’d heard about coke, but never had the chance to try it. Sealed cans and bottles were hard to come by after all the major drinks factories were raided. They were pretty useful as rations. Full of energy, and they never seemed to go out of date, despite the warnings on them.
It was the most delicious lunch of his life. And the cookie? Moist, warm and with tiny melting chips? Heavenly.
“Next stop, Jewellers!”
Mark-1 span around and saw Jeff grinning in his orange coveralls and propped up on his own mop.
“PLEASE stop doing that.”
Jeff only laughed and beckoned for Mark-1 to follow. By the time Mark-1 had left Subway, Jeff was already out of sight. But the lights on The Jewellers had brightened and there was activity in the window.
As Mark-1 walked in, a man in a tuxedo and wearing a monocle stepped behind the counter.
“Well good day, mister. Would you like to peruse our jewellery?”
“Why are you doing this? Why is this tour happening?”
Jeff merely coughed, holding his hands in an overly debonaire and sophisticated way. The way that he supposed the worker of a high end jewellers would hold his hands.
“Rings or necklaces, good sir?”
“Rings, I guess.”
Jeff put on a pair of blue rubber gloves and took out a diamond ring from a display case in front of him. It shone radiantly, as it had been dusted daily by Jeff the Cleaner, along with the other eight hundred and sixty-seven pieces of jewellery in the shop.
“This one is a very fascinating specimen, wouldn’t you say? It comes from an African Mine and-
“Yeah, I’ll take it.”
Jeff the Jeweller scoffed. “Sir, I doubt you can afford this piece. It is priceless! At least two thousand for this one!”
Mark-1 didn’t bother to correct Jeff on how you couldn’t have a diamond ring that was both “priceless” and “for sale” and instead put a charred and dirty wad of cash on the counter.
“Here’s three thousand.”
“Ah, thank you good sir. I see my sales pitch has persuaded you!” He raised his eyebrows in smug satisfaction. “I have been trained in advanced sales techniques.”
“Money is useless.”
“Here is your change.”
Jeff handed back a fifty dollar note from the pile on the counter and stuffed the rest into the pockets of his tuxedo before disappearing again.
Mark-1 turned around, already bracing himself. And there was Jeff the Cleaner, already running happily along to the clothing store like an excited child trapped inside the body of a geriatric. Mark-1 followed, already knowing the next few steps and sighing heavily.
At least he had a story to tell his future children, Mark-2 and Mark-3, if he came across a woman in any neighbouring county. He hadn’t so far. In part, he was annoyed at having left his father and mother. He wondered idly if Mark and Shelly still thought of him from time to time.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Mark-1 left Urban Outfitters wearing clothes that didn’t fit at all, but would still be warm during the winter months. He was briefly surprised when Jeff smiled sadly, pulling on his orange coveralls for the last time and told him that that was the end of the tour.
They stopped briefly at the photo booth, but it didn’t work and Jeff was beginning to get agitated. Especially when Mark-01 walked near a section of tiles outside JD Sports that were so pristine that they were gleaming.
He waved goodbye to Mark-1 at the far exit of the mall and gave him a sheet of paper. He watched, trembling, as Mark-1 filled out the Customer Survey Questionnaire and handed it back.
Jeff watched Mark-01 walk away through the sliding glass doors and looked down at the sheet.
All five’s. Five out of five in every category.
He mopped his brow before digging one hand into his pocket. He pulled out the faded “Site Manager” badge that Jodi had entrusted him with all those years ago.
His voice cracked.
“I didn’t let you down. Just what you always talked about, boss. One hundred percent customer satisfaction. Everyone’s happy.”
He smiled through the tears, so joyful. So joyful.
A shaking hand pulled out the mobile phone from his other pocket, a dusty relic with a cracked screen and batteries that had stopped working decades ago.
He held it to his ear and began to happily tell his mother about his day, hoping that somewhere she could hear.
Charlie Chitty is a writer from Cheltenham, UK, who has had five stories published over at Terror House Magazine and has a website over at charliechitty.com