Authors: Christopher Fulbright,Angeline Hawkes
Dejah stood bleary-eyed staring out the back window of their home in Cooper Heights and wondered why in the hell she was still here.
Wrapped in her maroon plush robe, she wafted the fresh cup of coffee just under her nose, hoping it would help to breathe it in, that she’d awaken magically from this dream and find she hadn’t wasted the past ten years of her life with a man who seemed a complete stranger to her now, who hadn’t touched her with a tender hand in longer than she cared to think about. If it weren’t for Selah, she wouldn’t have made it this far with Thomas. There had been problems all along. Starting five years ago, she strongly suspected that he was with other women and not on frequent business trips.
Funny thing, she wasn’t sure it really mattered.
But despite Selah, despite her strong feelings that it was best for them to keep things together for their daughter’s sake, Dejah wasn’t sure she could make it much farther.
Oh give it up
Your pity party every damn morning gets tiresome. Look at this house, these things, you don’t have to work, Selah has everything she needs and then some. You could have done a hell of a lot worse.
Yes, that was true. She knew it, and she felt a twinge of guilt at entertaining the notion of leaving, but she did it nonetheless. Some days, she thought about going back to teaching at the junior high, but that meant having to put Selah in day care, and she wasn’t sure she could make enough money to swing it. And she’d have to―make money, that is―if she planned on leaving. She’d have to get a teaching job again, because that was all she’d ever done (and honestly all she’d ever wanted to do). And yes, here she was thinking of leaving him for nothing other than unconfirmed suspicions and the simple fact that she
to feel a throbbing current of electricity inside of her, to gasp and feel passion and excitement again, to clutch someone in the throes of ecstasy and be held tight in return … and to know that person would be there for her in every way for all time.
“You’re dreamin’, sister,” she muttered. Standing on the bare wood floor, she watched through the windows of the dining room as a squirrel with a nut skittered down a tree, turning dead leaves as it ran across the golden backyard, darting over the fence.
In the living room, the television was on low, murmuring to itself. She wandered in as her coffee cooled enough to take a sip. She stood behind the couch and let the heat of the liquid ebb through her.
A dark-haired IBC4 newsman with strong features stood in front of a chain link fence with an industrial complex and airplane hangars in the background. She admired the line of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, his professional poise.
Christ, girl, what’s with you this morning?
She planned to head into the master bedroom to shower when she caught the caption beneath the screen: H-Systems, Greenville, Texas. The camera view panned across a field near the complex. It was thick with what looked like Army soldiers, or maybe reservists, all armed. Beyond were the smoldering bits of wreckage of an airplane swarmed by emergency personnel. She caught the words “suspected terrorist attack.” She sat on the couch and reached for the remote, her coffee forgotten as a vague feeling of unease washed over her. Since the September 11 World Trade Center attack, the words “terrorist attack” would never be taken lightly again. And this was something more. It didn’t look that way, so she couldn’t explain
she knew, she just knew.
The reporter, Kent Mahalo, droned on: “As you can see behind me, emergency crews are combing through the bits of wreckage, presumably in hopes of locating survivors. The explosion was so large, wreckage is scattered over a good portion of acreage on the outskirts of Greenville, in Hunt County. The Army hasn’t released any information. We don’t know who or what was being transported aboard the plane, but we’ve been told that Homeland Security has upped the national threat level to severe, putting us on alert for more possible attacks. Army officials tell us a press conference is scheduled—”
Dejah hit the mute button and grabbed her cell phone. Her heart pounding, her breathing shallow. She hit
and called Lily and Vince Corliss, Thomas’s parents. After two rings, Lily’s frail voice answered.
“Hi Lily, it’s Dejah.”
“Oh hi, sweetheart. How are you doing?”
“Good. Say, I’m sorry to call so early, but I was watching television and I saw the news of the airplane attack and I was wondering … could I talk to Selah?”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be a problem Dejah, but she’s still asleep. Would you like me to wake her?”
she wanted to say,
yes, I want to talk to her right away
, but she didn’t want to seem like a total freak. It wasn’t like the airplane crashed into their friggin’ house, but still. “Is Tom awake?”
“Yes, he’s right here. Hold on one sec.” The phone passed hands and her husband’s voice came through the receiver, tense.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. “Everything okay over there?”
“Yeah. We heard the explosion. It shook the house, but it was far enough away that we didn’t get any wreckage here. Had a few military vehicles pass through the neighborhood. Of course, Dad spent an hour out there making conversation with some brass reminiscing about the good old days.”
“Okay, well … you don’t think you guys should come home?”
Silence. Something inside of her went cold. She tightened her jaw and was surprised at the strength of her sudden loathing. Her cheeks went red with embarrassment. Or was it rage?
“I don’t think it will help matters any,” he said.
She remained silent.
“We agreed this time apart would be good for us, remember. You asked for this.” He paused, presumably to let the sting sink in. “Besides, the news says there’s a temporary lockdown in the area so we won’t be allowed out even if we want to leave; and Mom and Dad have been looking forward to this time with Selah.”
She watched the handsome reporter on the news. “I’d like to talk to Selah.”
“I’d like to talk to her.”
She heard him sigh with irritation and presumably carry the phone into the guest room where Selah slept when visiting her grandparents. She heard the soft sounds of Thomas waking her. Her heart panged with grief. How could she have been so selfish? She should’ve sent Thomas away and kept Selah with her.
“Mommy?” Selah’s voice was soft with sleepiness.
“Hi, sweetie.” Her eyes filled with tears. Dejah did her damnedest to keep the tremors of emotion out of her voice. “How are you doing? Are you having a good time with Gamma and Ah-pa?”
“Oh good. Do you guys have anything fun planned for today?”
“Um … I don’t know. I was sleepin’.” Then Selah asked, “Are you okay, Mommy?”
“Oh yeah, I was just missing you and wanted to call and say hi.”
“Okay, I love you.”
“I love you, too, punkin. Give me a call later and let me know what’s going on, okay.”
There was a shifting and Thomas came back on the line. “All right. We’ll call you if there’s any change of plan, but everything seems fine. I’m sure it’s all under control.”
Dejah pressed her lips together. Her brow furrowed. “Okay, well, I was just concerned when I heard the news. There’s supposed to be a press conference later.”
“Right. Well, like I said, the place is swarming with cops and soldiers and everybody from here to the sticks that has a gun. All kinds of rumors are flying about why we’re in lockdown, but you know how it is—”
She was quiet. She wanted the conversation to be over. Just wanted to hang up because she didn’t like his tone, didn’t like anything about this situation, but he was in control and her only link to her daughter, and that gave her one hell of a sense of anxiety. He couldn’t be trusted. She felt it in her heart. Resentment burned in her cheeks. “I love you,” she said. And it surprised her, because, she realized that she absolutely did
love him, and wasn’t sure she ever
had. It was just a test. And he flunked with flying colors.
“We’ll see you on Monday,” he said.
She hung up the phone. Her coffee was cold.
“Got another one in Room 6.” Nurse Cindy stuck a clipboard into the plastic basket attached to the wall and continued walking past Dr. Robbins toward the front desk.
“How many are we up to — with the same symptoms?”
“Forty-six in the last hour.” Cindy downed a Styrofoam cup of juice that a fellow nurse handed her. “Got any aspirin?”
“You’re not getting sick too, are you?” Robbins asked, looking up from the clipboard from Room 4. He watched Cindy pop two tablets into her mouth and then resumed flipping through the papers under the clip.
Robbins frowned, doubt creeping across his face. “I’m down four nurses and it’s only Monday morning.”
“Don’t worry, Doc. It’ll take a lot more than a little snot and sneezes to keep me down,” Cindy said, laughing. She washed her hands as Robbins went down the hall to Room 4, pulling the curtain closed behind him.
After he was gone, Cindy fell into the swivel chair behind the desk. “I feel like shit.”
“Yeah, thought that line of B.S. you fed Robbins was just that — B.S. You look like hell.”
“Thanks, Yolanda, you always know how to make a girl feel beautiful,” Cindy said.
“No, really. You look bad. You looked in the mirror lately?” Yolanda dug around in the top drawer of her desk, bringing out a compact. She flicked it open. “Take a look.”
Cindy rolled her eyes, but looked anyway. On top of the film of perspiration slicking her face, she had bags beneath her eyes that you could hang on a horse. “God.”
“Uh-huh. That’s what I’m sayin’.” Yolanda put away the compact. “Free Clinic over on Melbourne called. Their waiting room
outside step is full of people with the same symptoms we’ve got coming in here.”
“You think it’s some kind of H1N1 mutation?” Cindy wiped the back of her neck with a wet paper towel.
“Brad, down in the lab, says they don’t know
it is. Probably viral from the looks of it, he said, but they can’t send blood out of the county for more testing. Right now, they’re sending digital data to the research lab in Dallas.”
Cindy stood up. She swooned, felt light-headed and sat again. “Crap.” She laid her head back against the headrest on the chair.
“You should go lie down.”
“It’ll pass. I’ll be okay. Just need to rest. I’ve been working non-stop since midnight.”
Yolanda’s fingers blurred over her keyboard with rapid-fire typing. “Wonder if Dr. Robbins knows
?” Robbins leaned over the counter, tossing another chart onto the growing pile.
“Just got this bulletin from the CDC. In addition to the military lockdown on Hunt County, we’ve also been
. But, not just us. The quarantine’s been expanded into Rockwall County. The military has blocked access over Lake Ray Hubbard bridges and all other roadways into the county. Apparently,
the quarantine has to be prolonged, food will be ferried into the county by unmanned boats.”
Robbins laughed. “Let me see that. Are you sure that’s not one of those junk emails grandmas send to everyone on their address list?”
Yolanda turned her screen in his direction. “Read it for yourself. It’s an official CDC bulletin sent to the hospital. Lists all the symptoms we’ve been treating.”
Robbins started reading, pausing to comment: “And they don’t say a goddamn thing about exactly
we’re treating – just that
information will be forthcoming
. What the hell?” Robbins jabbed the monitor. “They don’t want to speculate so as not to cause mass panic. Beautiful.”
“Well, they sure aren’t doing a very good job at
.” Yolanda nervously tapped her pen on the desk.
“About as good a job as they did on that sorry ass press conference Saturday afternoon,” Cindy said, placing the wet towel over her eyes.
Robbins shot a concerned look her way. “They never did say what that General Langford was doing on a plane coming in for maintenance at H-systems.”
“Said he was tending to classified business. What more do you want, taxpaying American citizen?” Yolanda said, and belted out laughter that seemed too loud. “They aren’t gonna tell us shit and we all know it.”
Robbins’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He reached in his hand and slid the phone open in a fluid movement. “Robbins.”
“Hey, Matty, you heard from Burt?” It was Hoover. He sounded worried.
“Naw. Thought you said he was sick.”
“Yeah, he was, is … hell, I don’t know. All I know is his receptionist came by the Dairy Queen this morning askin’ if any of us had heard from him. She said he hasn’t answered the phone since Saturday.”
“Hmm, hell. Burt hasn’t missed a day of work in twenty-five years, probably more. I’m worried about him.”
“Can you get out there to see him?” Robbins asked.
“No, damn Army still has the road to his house blocked.” Hoover sounded frantic.
“Hoov — calm down. Get in your truck and drive out there. I’ll call Stew and see if he knows who I have to bang to get you through that road. I’d come myself and save us all the hassle if I wasn’t eyeball deep in some sort of epidemic.”
Hoover’s breathing sounded labored on the phone. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Send me a photo of him from your phone once you get through so I can see how he looks. Might be he has what everyone else is coming down with.”
“Not sure I know how to work that damn camera on the phone. Jack bought it for me. You’d think after the VCR fiasco, he’d know better than to—”
“Hoov?” Robbins interjected. “Go see Burt.”
“Okay. You make those calls.”
“Doing it now. Bye, Hoover.” Robbins sighed, and then punched Stewart’s office number into the phone. “Stew, this is Matt. Hey, Burt is sick and I’m sending Hoover over to check on him, but the goddamn Army’s got Burt’s road blocked. Who do I need to call to get Hoover access to that road? The situation is critical here at the hospital and I don’t have time for house calls.”
“I can take care of that. They issued you a work pass, didn’t they?”
“Okay. I’ll just have them check the list and tell them you’re sending Hoover out there to check on Burt.” Stewart sounded confident that he could get things arranged.
“Thanks, Stew. You’re a miracle worker.”
“No prob. Let me know how Burt is, okay?”
“Sure thing. Thanks again.” Robbins closed his phone and plopped it in his jacket pocket.
* * *
Thomas Corliss rolled to a stop behind a faded truck. The road in front was blockaded. Thomas could see the soldier talking with the driver, an old man in a ball cap and denim shirt.
He switched the radio channels around trying to find something that wasn’t crap that passed as music. Selah sat in the backseat with a coloring book on her lap, seemingly oblivious to the twenty-minute (and counting) wait.
The soldier was making a phone call while the old guy waited. After another ten minutes or so, the soldiers manning the blockade waved the truck through. Thomas was ecstatic, and put his foot on the gas — only to be waved to a stop. One of the soldiers came to the window. Thomas pushed the power lever and the window slid down.
“I’m going to have to ask you to return to your home. This road is closed. Hunt and Rockwall counties are quarantined,” the soldier said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do. We live in Arlington.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t let you pass.” The soldier stood his ground.
Thomas scowled. “You just let that truck through.” He pointed in the direction of the departing vehicle, more than a little pissed.
“He had medical clearance.”
“Well, what do I have to do to get clearance?” Thomas glanced in the rearview mirror at Selah who was listening intently.
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to return to your point of origin.”
“For how long?”
The soldier’s face broke its icy composure for a fleeting second, and annoyance replaced it. Then he returned to his expressionless, trained visage. “There’s no information about the duration of the lock-down, sir. Now if you’d please turn your car around by the soldier with the flag.” He pointed to the flag-waving man in camouflage off to the right.
Thomas realized arguing was futile and, shaking his head, turned his car around as instructed.
“Your mother isn’t going to be pleased about this.”
“Are we going home?” Selah said, crayon gripped tightly in her hand.
“Ssh, just a minute, honey. Let me call Mommy.” He used speed dial, calling Dejah at home. She picked up immediately.
“Thomas? Is that you? Is Selah okay?”
“Yeah, hey, listen. We just tried to get through the blockade and the soldiers made us turn around.”
“What? I can barely hear you. You’re breaking up.”
“I’m out in the middle of nowhere, bad reception,” and then louder, “They won’t let us through the blockade. The soldiers made us turn around. We have to go back to Mom and Dad’s.”
“Why? I mean, did they tell you for how long?” Dejah’s voice rose in pitch; panic welled in her words.
“No. The soldier said that information hadn’t been made available yet.”
“Hey, we’ll call you when we know something.” Thomas turned onto the road leading to his parents’ house.
“No, call me tonight. Have Selah call, okay?” Dejah almost pleaded.
“Yeah, okay. Bye.” He ended the call before she could say anything else.
* * *
Hoover drove over the rutty dirt road leading to Burt’s house, or Burt’s Country Club, as they jokingly referred to it. More than one wife had tried her damnedest to pry Burt’s mansion out of his clutches, but in the end, he was still firmly rooted out here in the middle of goddamn nowhere.
Hoover honked as he approached the circle drive. The dirt road ramped onto pebbled concrete. Burt thought by keeping the road that branched from the farm road unpaved, trespassers would assume there was some white trash trailer out here and leave him alone. It worked. He rarely had anyone come down the road that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Hoover honked again, pulling up in front of the old plantation style house.
“That’s funny. Where are the Boys?” Hoover slammed the bucket of lead he called a truck into park and opened his creaking door, looking for Burt’s dogs, otherwise known as the Boys. “Here, Boy, here Boy!” Both dogs were actually named
. Made things easier for Burt to keep straight he’d said. Damned if he knew where they’d gotten off to.
Nothing but crickets in the grass.
Hoover got out his phone and fiddled with it for a minute. Matty asked him to snap a photo of Burt and send it back. He pressed a button, taking a photo of the dirt.
Yep, that’s it
He approached the front door. It was open a crack. Maybe Burt had just gone back inside. Hoover rang the doorbell, certain the chimes would bring Burt’s two Rottweilers in a rush of black fur — out the door and around him in a flurry of barks — but, only the chimes and silence greeted him.
“Hey, Burt? You in there?” Hoover pushed on the door and hesitantly peered around the edge. He hoped Burt wasn’t walking around in his birthday suit or something. “Here Boy, here Boy!”
The door swung open at his touch. Hoover stared into the marble-floored foyer, the sounds of some old Kenny Rogers song playing on the radio somewhere in the house. He entered, closing the door behind him. “Burt? It’s Hoov. Matty sent me to check on you.”
He walked through the carpeted hall into the kitchen — and froze.
Burt sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by a heap of pulpy meat. The two dogs lay belly up on either side of Burt’s legs, their abdomens spilled in a pile of gore, blood pooled over the yellow-gold tile. Hoover looked from the dog carcasses to Burt’s anguished face. He was stuffing handfuls of intestines, long and looping, into his mouth and chomping on the squeaky gut like it was spicy sausage from the Grandma’s Special Breakfast Platter at the Cracker Barrel.
Burt looked at Hoover with a blank trance-like stare. His arms were dripping blood from his fingers to his armpits. The white oxford, usually heavily starched and crisp, was mangled, shredded, the fabric wet and deep red.
He was positively gray: the color of old campfire ash. His eyes were sunk into his skull like decapitated heads the Viet Cong left sticking on pikes outside of villages back in Vietnam.
“Burt?” Hoover’s hand trembled violently as he raised his phone. He steadied it as best as he could while he punched the camera button. A burst of light flashed, followed by the whir-and-click sounds. Hoover looked at the phone and hit the necessary keys to send the photo to Matt.