By Sean Dempsey
Thunder exploded in the night sky. The rain didn’t seem to stop falling for a second. Nor did the sirens stop wailing. A sad cacophony of noise that was at once sublime yet bristled the soul—simultaneously sweet and sour in a way that made the confused sounds unbearable.
Oliver was petrified. He ran, soaked in the dark and constant rain. He seemed to run for his life.
Eventually he arrived home to his family. His wife Claire and their precious daughter, Emily, stared at him as he noisily barged into their humble cottage in the woods, dripping wet and panting.
“My God, honey; what’s wrong?” Emily looked up, shocked to see her husband so wet and deranged, standing in the open doorway.
He told them.
The foreign pandemic had reached them. It was here.
Over the next several weeks, Oliver’s fears multiplied, casting a shadow over his heart. The government’s mandate for strict quarantine further solidified his resolve to shield his family from the outside world and the deadly virus that spread so fiercely. He was resolved to save his family no matter what!
“A man’s job is to fight for and protect his family!” he told himself repeatedly. It became his mantra and his guiding north star.
Days melted into weeks, and weeks bled into months, trapping them in a state of perpetual seclusion.
During the day he spent the mornings trapping small game. In the afternoon he cut wood for their fire. In the evenings Oliver would help his wife and daughter prepare their meager meals. Emily and Claire would spend their days mending clothing in the cottage, and occasionally cultivating and harvesting their vegetable garden next to the house.
While consumed in his demanding schedule and obsession for self-reliance, Oliver became increasingly withdrawn, his fear morphing into an all-consuming monster. The walls of their house became their fortress, protecting them from the dangers lurking beyond.
The world terrified him. He began to have dreams of the virus, manifesting as a wolf, breaking into their home and stealing his wife and daughter in the night. One evening he woke up screaming, sweat rolling down his face. He had seen it; he had seen the wolf devour his family while he stood and watched—unable to move. In the piercing darkness, he saw its salivating lips and snarling teeth with his waking eyes—he could almost smell its hot breath as it hungrily fed on the flesh of his beautiful baby girl.
He would not let this virus take his family! He would defend their lives with his last breath.
As time moved on, the family’s conversations became muted, the weight of isolation eroding their once vibrant dialogue. The laughter that previously echoed through the halls became a distant memory, replaced by a solemn silence.
Claire’s voice, tinged with resignation, broke the stillness one afternoon. “Oliver, we can’t keep hiding forever. Emily deserves a chance to experience life beyond these walls.”
Oliver’s eyes darted around the room, his voice trembling. “But what if something happens to her? What if we lose everything? I’ll not hear another word.”
“But dear, I —“
“Silence! There will be no debate, Emily! You’ll not shatter my resolve with your words and your arguments. Accept what I say, and speak no more!”
That settled the matter and no further discussion on the topic manifested for several more months.
Oliver’s fear grew exponentially, creating a chasm between them and the outside world. Claire, once filled with laughter and vibrant energy, withered like a forgotten flower.
Emily’s voice, once filled with youthful curiosity, finally spoke up with a hint of sadness. “Mommy, why don’t we ever leave? What’s out there?”
Claire exchanged a weary glance with Oliver, her voice laced with regret. “We’ll explain one day, sweetheart. Just trust us, okay?”
The world beyond their windows remained shrouded in darkness, its secrets hidden from Oliver’s vigilant eyes. But the toll of their self-imposed exile was insidious. Limited supplies and the lack of medical attention led to their gradual decline. Malnutrition ravaged their bodies, and pretty soon ailments went untreated within the isolation of their fearful sanctuary.
Oliver, ever consumed by his fears, was oblivious to the passing of time and the shifting tides of the outside world. The whispers of hope and resilience never reached his ears. He didn’t wish to hear anything about the outside world because it was a place now shrouded in darkness—it was a world of pain and disease that threatened to steal all he held dear!
His daughter spoke into the falling darkness one evening as they sat at their dining table. Their thin soup was cold and lacked any flavor. In a raspy, weakened whisper she whispered, “Daddy, I don’t want to live any more. Not like this. I am a ghost. We are all ghosts. We survive, but none of us are alive.”
Oliver slowly looked over to her, barely listening. He smiled weakly in the dim light. Between cracked and broken lips, he responded. “We are safe, child. That is all that matters.”
As the months turned into years, the weight of solitude became unbearable. The echoes of silence within their home reverberated through their souls, a constant reminder of the life they had lost.
Coming back one evening, as Oliver ventured hesitantly into the empty rooms of their home, he discovered his family, motionless and lifeless. Grief pierced his heart like a thousand shards of glass.
Had the wolf somehow come for his family? How!? He had been so careful! He had been so deliberate and meticulous. He reached for his daughter’s hand and found it cold to the touch. Her emancipated body felt almost weightless in his left arm as he brought her face to his; tears rained down on her icy cheek. The truth surged into his brain like salt water into the lungs of a drowning man.
The realization that HE had failed them—that his fears and isolation had condemned them to this fate—overwhelmed him with unbearable guilt.
With trembling hands, Oliver reached out and put his other arm to heaven, his voice choked with sorrow. “I’m so sorry… I failed you. My beautiful girls! I killed you.”
In his anguish and a desperate search for solace, Oliver screamed miserably into the night. It was the sound of a wild animal, mad with fury and misery.
Resigned to die and consumed by thoughts of a descending darkness, Oliver threw open the door to his prison and, like a madman, ran screaming into town. He would let the wolf devour him!
There the tragic truth lay bare…
The world was alive and well. By the twilight moon, he saw people bustling to and fro. There was no more disease; there was no more panic. The world had healed its scars … only he alone had allowed the wound to fester.
Oliver dropped to his knees and cried into his lap. “The plague… it must have ended years ago,” Oliver murmured in a quiet, moronic frenzy; his near-inaudible voice was filled with wild disbelief. “We were safe all along.”
The weight of regret pressed upon him, suffocating his ability to even breathe. The knowledge that he had robbed his innocent family of the life they deserved was too much to bear. He laid down in the street, under the waning light of the crescent moon, and gave up all that remained of his tired and fearful spirit.
A wolf howled, far away in the distant night.