Authors: Christopher Fulbright,Angeline Hawkes
Burt made a noise that sounded like a cross between a gargle and a grunt and lurched from his dog meat feast on the floor to a precarious standing position. He started toward Hoover, who instinctively backed toward the hall to the front door.
“Hey, buddy, looks like you’re not feeling too—”
Burt lunged and tackled Hoover with the strength of ten twenty-year-old men. Burt’s fingernails had grown into ragged talon-like projections, the skin around the nail bed pulled back like that of a corpse. Bits of stringy dog meat clung to his teeth and his breath was pure decay.
Hoover fought Burt with every ounce of strength in his body, but Hoover was no match for him. Burt sank his teeth into Hoover’s shoulder and tore a chunk of meat from the bone, denim shirt and all.
“Burt!” Hoover shouted, but followed his cry with a gurgle as Burt plunged his mouth into his neck, tearing the wrinkled flesh away and ripping his throat out in a spray of crimson that peppered the paneling, curtains, and plush carpet.
Dr. Matthew Robbins slumped in an uncomfortable plastic chair in the staff break room of the Hunt County Memorial Hospital. Exhausted and jittery from too much coffee, his hand reached to a breast pocket for a phantom pack of cigarettes that hadn’t been there for three years. He sighed. He sat glassy-eyed before the decade-old television, tuned to a Dallas-area news broadcast.
Reporters had no shortage of interviews with teachers and administrators from Dallas area schools — shut down due to the flu epidemic. After the teachers, students, and even school janitors were bombarded with questions, the cameras panned to yet more reporters interviewing harried doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics. They were seeing patients with symptoms just like those he and his staff had been treating all day and into the night. The illness so far was similar to various strains of influenza, except for a touch of delirium in some cases and a slight grayish discoloration of the skin. Preliminary lab results showed antibodies produced in massive immune responses, but so far it didn’t appear they were having a significant effect on the antigen, whatever it was. A virus…but what kind? The regular flu vaccine did nothing to stem the tide of the outbreak. They’d tried it simply for lack of anything better, especially in light of the initial symptoms. On TV, an elderly doctor who’d been called in to help exhausted staff at a suburban family practice office droned on while Robbins fell asleep, face down on the table, slouched in the chair, his cup of Joe precariously clutched in a limp hand.
His mind was a blur of the moans of the sick, tortured expressions from family members who would later show up again sick themselves, and the ever-present scent of vomit and antiseptics. Even as he drifted into slumber, his dream-self filled out another chart, another chart, and another chart in a never-ending nightmare that served to mimic his reality. Robbins fitfully snored, willing himself to a better dream, only to find his brain suddenly joining a couple pieces of the puzzle.
Robbins opened his eyes and sat up straight. On the table beneath his cup of half finished coffee lay the Wednesday edition of the local paper. Splashed on the front page was the big story about Friday night’s football game between Greenville Christian Academy and Millward Christian High School. Normally the private schools didn’t get their fair share of coverage, but this had been a slow week in the small town, so the big defeat made it to the main page. Scanning the article, his mind was abuzz with a timeline of Friday night’s events. From the end of the football game, to the time of the explosion, and the estimated travel time for the Millward football team leaving Greenville and proceeding westward toward Dallas, Robbins calculated that the Millward team cleared the county line before the military locked down the county. He hadn’t heard anything about the visiting team getting stuck in Greenville.
He reached for the phone, with a base and a receiver and square buttons you pushed to dial. It was mustard yellow, the kind of phone you rented from the phone company on a monthly basis way back when: a dinosaur. He flipped open the tattered copy of the slim Hunt County phone book and looked up the number of the Greenville Christian Academy. Punching in the number, he stared at the photo on the front page. The phone rang.
“Uh, yes, hello. This is Dr. Matthew Robbins. I’m head of emergency medicine at Hunt County Memorial Hospital. I was wondering if you could tell me if the Millward Christian High School football team made it safely out of Hunt County Friday night?”
“Uhm, well … yeah, as far as I know.” The man on the line seemed a bit flummoxed. “I mean, we never heard anything to the contrary. I’m sure the team would have returned to our school if they were held up by the lockdown.”
“Is there any way you could confirm this for me? It’s important.”
“I could call the school.”
“That would be very helpful. Could you call me back right away with the answer?”
“Sure. Let me write down your number.”
“It’s 903-555-9870, extension 629. Dr. Robbins. I’ll be here waiting. And, thank you.” Robbins hung the receiver into the cradle. The news was still broadcasting the flu story. The phone rang minutes later. “Hello? Dr. Robbins speaking.”
“Dr. Robbins? This is Louis Herrera, from Greenville Christian Academy. I called Millward Christian High School and spoke with their principal. The team made it home safely Friday night.”
“Oh, good. That’s what I needed to know.”
“Well, it’s not all good news, sadly. Most of the team has been hospitalized or worse. Two of the boys are in some kind of coma.”
Robbins frowned. “Related to the viral outbreak?”
“They think so,” Louis said. “Is there anything else I can do for you today, doctor?”
“No, no. You’ve been a tremendous help. Thank you very much.”
“Goodbye, doctor. If we can be of any more help, just let us know,” Louis said and hung up.
Robbins leaned back in the chair as he mentally ran through the events of the past five days.
They hadn’t seen that here at Memorial. Yet. What if the terrorists didn’t just blow up that plane? What if they released something into the air along with the missile or whatever the hell they used? He couldn’t help thinking that the symptoms they were seeing could be the result of some sort of biological agent.
If those Millward boys were anywhere near the explosion on their way out of the county, it stood to reason that they were among the first exposed to the viral hazard — and carried it out before the lockdown occurred. That would explain how the illness migrated through Rockwall County and into Dallas — and why the illness spread like wildfire throughout the schools.
“Son of a bitch,” Robbins muttered.
That would mean the government knew about the biological agent and sent the military into the county at an unprecedented speed to shut down the roadways to contain whatever the hell it was — but the Millward boys made it out, so that didn’t happen in time. Robbins ran a hand through his hair.
This is all speculation
, he thought.
But very plausible.
He needed answers. He needed to know what the hell he was up against and how to fight it. The virus had a forty-eight hour incubation period before patients began exhibiting symptoms. It had been five days since the explosion. If two Millward boys were in comas, he figured he could expect similar developments on some level here shortly. He wondered if there were any dead throughout the city or county that had gone unreported. There were lots of elderly citizens living alone in trailers in the rural parts. As was usually the case with something like this, some folks got it worse than others. Where some people like himself didn’t get sick at all, some people had just gone from sick to worse, while still others went from sick to dead in a matter of hours.
“Dr. Robbins,” a voice stated through the overhead speaker. “Please report to the ER. Dr. Robbins, please report to the ER.”
Robbins pushed his chair away and stood. He stretched, downed the last swallow of cold coffee, and tossed the cup into the trash. He walked past the front desk in the emergency room. “Hey, Yolanda, if you get a minute, can you call Kammie and see how she’s doing? If I call her, she’ll get worried that I’m going all parental on her.”
Robbins picked up the waiting clipboard and headed for the emergency room.
Dejah sat on the edge of the bed in the master bedroom, dialing Thomas’s phone again. The automated message from Verizon came on the line: “The wireless customer you are calling is not available. Please hang up and try your call again at a later time.” The robot rattled off some numeric code as Dejah balled her fist and resisted the urge to throw the phone against the wall.
It’s your only lifeline to Selah. And much as it’d be nice, bashing your phone into the wall won’t transfer pain to Thomas in any way, shape, or form.
With a heavy sigh she dropped the phone onto the bed and focused on the television atop their dresser. The scenes she saw there didn’t seem real: an apocalypse film reality that had been transferred to the news, another Wellesian
War of the Worlds
. Her eyes saw the reports, the evidence of complete and sudden epidemic on the streets and highways she’d driven for years, and yet it somehow didn’t register as reality except that her heart rate was through the roof. Her mind was denying it, but her endocrine system was already working overtime to deal with it; that and her fear of what was going on with Selah, and her anger at Thomas’s shit attitude during his phone call Monday morning, the last time she’d spoken with him.
On the news played the horror flick vision of a gas-masked reporter on the corner of Cooper Street and Park Row, across from Arlington High School and just up the hill from University of Texas at Arlington. All around him lay a traffic nightmare. Emergency vehicle sirens rang in the background. The circular drive of the high school was packed with cars, a few people milled around a small band of men who’d joined forces to push cars off the main driveway.
“As you can see here,” the reporter droned, muffled by his mask, “people are literally passing out in their vehicles. Some need medical attention and some appear to be dying or – as awful as it seems – are dead already. Emergency crews here in Arlington are working overtime, but with the sudden explosion of the epidemic, all people can do here at the school is gather their children and try to get out of the parking lot, never mind down the road. If we pan over the road here—”
The camera shook. The tone of the newscast had lost much of its rigid formality in the heat of the seriousness of this event, whatever it was — the plague, the apocalypse, Armageddon. The newsman could be heard saying “
” under his breath, and the cameraman replying with a stronger oath when they panned around to show the hill leading down to the University of Texas at Arlington. The scene was more chaos. Cars were stalled on Cooper Street. It was as if some drivers had spontaneously lost all control of their vehicles, or themselves, and gone riding up onto the curbs into buildings along the side of the road, or careening into oncoming traffic. A couple of people could be seen wandering in a daze. Another person dragged a limp form out of a vehicle onto the ground. A tow truck with flashing yellow lights tried to haul cars out of the way to open a single lane on the six-lane street.
“—you can see how widespread the problem is becoming. A reminder—” the camera shook as it struggled to get the newsman into view. “Do
go out of your house. The Department of Homeland Security has recommended all residents stay indoors and avoid contact with any outside—
oh my God
!” The reporter screamed in shrill panic. The camera went down hard onto the pavement. There were the sounds of a scuffle and footsteps. A jet of blood spattered the camera lens. The view changed to the newsroom where already overworked news anchors tried to contact the field reporter.
Dejah stood next to the television, transfixed by the scene, biting a knuckle without realizing it. She waited for the station to return to the reporter in Arlington, but the stunned anchors went on connecting with reporters in other parts of the metroplex as they frantically tried to reestablish contact with their downed cameraman.
“Good God,” she whispered.
A car horn blared outside. She hurried to the bedroom window.
When she pulled open the white slats of the blinds, the gray day revealed a new tableau of horror in their suburban neighborhood. One car was stalled just down the road. Other vehicles were parked parallel. Across the street at the Revis’s house, what looked like an adult lay motionless on the front lawn. The person was face-up, short hair, gray sweatshirt, in blue jeans and black slippers. Most disturbing of all, four-year-old Carrie Revis rode her tricycle in a circle around the body.
Is that Brian Revis?
She watched little Carrie closely through the opening she’d made in the blinds. The girl went round and round, head down, intent on her circular path.
Surely that’s a prop. They’re putting out Halloween decorations early. Right?
Yeah, chick. This is all one big trick for Halloween. Ready for the treat, yet?
Dejah adjusted her angle to look up the street and see who was laying on the horn. She couldn’t see far enough. Taking a final glance at the news, she left the bedroom and went to the front door. She paused, hand on the doorknob, the newsman’s warning to stay indoors echoing in her mind.
Dejah looked out the peephole. All she could see was a funhouse mirror version of what she’d seen from the bedroom window. Carrie Revis on her tricycle, circling a body face-up on the grass in her front yard.
And still, the horn droned on.
She turned the knob gently and opened the door to peer outside. Cool air rushed over her cheeks. Across her front lawn were scattered black rocks … no,
birds. And parked at the curb in front of her neighbor’s house was a mail truck. Its horn droned. The driver was hunched over the steering wheel, convulsing. No, wait—
“Hey,” she yelled out of compulsion. “Hey, shoo!” Dejah opened her door and stepped out, but not quite far enough away that she couldn’t leap back inside if necessary.
A mongrel dog was propped up on its forelegs, leaning into the mailman’s open window. It growled and snarled. It bared its teeth and munched on the limp man’s arm, yanking him violently, trying to pull him out. It took a deeper bite, propped both front paws on the door, and made a show of trying to yank its wounded prey through the window.
Revulsion heaved in Dejah. The mailman delivered packages and did mail pickups for her at least once a week. His name was Ray and he had two children at home, a wife who loved chocolate, and he was having a hard time quitting smoking.
Maybe that’s a moot point now
“Hey!” She took a fierce tone with the dog and stomped her foot, going a few steps closer, adrenalin fueling her anger and fear for the man’s life.
Looks too late
. “Shoo, shoo, you damn mutt!” She picked a rock from the garden bed and tossed it hard. Missed with the first shot.
She nailed the truck door with the second throw.
The loud bang startled the canine. It hopped down and looked at her, growling. With an unhappy snap and snarl, it turned and ran away. She watched it disappear down the street. It loped through a hedge and was gone.
Ray, the mailman, fell forward, shifted by the dog’s last effort to remove him from the truck’s cab. His head lolled to the side. The last note of the horn echoed across the deathly quiet neighborhood. His form was dark and shadowy, barely discernable from where she stood.
“Ray?” she yelled. “Are you okay?”
Of course he’s not friggin’ okay, he just got his arm mauled.
He was unconscious. She wouldn’t go to him. “Ray?”
The squeaking sound of Carrie Revis’s tricycle stopped.
Dejah looked across the street.
The small girl was still. She had stopped riding. She stared across the street at Dejah. Something seemed wrong with her. Her eyes, deep and too dark, shadowed…she was silent. In shock?
Dejah backed toward the open front door. She scanned the street, looking up and down the block before going inside. After she closed the door and fixed the deadbolt, her heart pounded. She tried to swallow; her throat was dry. Looking through the peephole, she saw little Carrie remained still, staring at Dejah’s front door.
She hurried back into the bedroom. The news continued. An aerial shot over Rockwall County just this side of Greenville showed what looked like a war zone over the Lake Ray Hubbard bridge: cars, emergency vehicles, people wandering, some running, some lying motionless on the street, and …
, she thought,
are they attacking each other
The panicked voice of another reporter came on, the low sound of the helicopter engine loud in the background as he spoke. “It seems people have begun displaying some very strange behavior. The epidemic is in full swing, and people are
other people. Mary and Tim, I hope you all are safe in the studio because, dear Lord, I can hardly believe it myself, I have to get some confirmation from the authorities before I relay what I’ve seen, but out here on the streets, in the cities … it’s astonishing what people are doing to one another.”
Dejah went straight for her phone. She had to talk with Thomas again. She had waited by the damn phone since Monday and she couldn’t wait anymore. Rockwall was damned close to Greenville, and whatever the hell was happening in Rockwall might be happening in Greenville too. She dialed Thomas’s phone receiving the same message as before. She called the Greenville Police Department and got a recording saying all circuits were busy. Finally, she called 911, feeling the bottom drop out of her stomach with hopelessness as she got a fast busy signal.
She ended the last call and stared at the fading face of her phone’s display. It went dark like the hope inside of her. Every cell in her body yearned to hear Selah’s voice, to know she was okay.
“Surely they went back to his parents’ house like he said he was going to do,” she muttered in the bedroom. It was the best course of action, the only course of action. They didn’t have anywhere else to go. Maybe a hotel, if the way back to the ranch was blocked too. She dialed Thomas’s parents’ house. Another “all circuits busy” message drew a pained groan from deep inside her.
Dejah stood in the middle of the room, the news droning on in a panicked white noise. She set her jaw, narrowed her eyes at the window, thinking of the dog, and Carrie Revis, and the unknown body face-up in the yard across the street.
The dead birds. The blood on the cameraman’s lens.
What the fuck is happening?
Whatever it was, her daughter was seemingly on the other side of the world, across the metroplex, beyond the Lake Cities. And that wasn’t acceptable. It was downright
She was going to Selah. Because if the world was over, then she was going to be there with her daughter come Hell or high water.
She rushed into the closet and packed a duffel bag of essential items. She dug in the closet for flashlights, batteries, an emergency crank radio. She grabbed granola bars, ramen, and water from the kitchen cupboard, grabbed a hammer from the tool bin and lamented Thomas’s fear of guns in the house. She grabbed her keys and phone and hurried out the back door into the driveway.
The cool air washed over her again. The air smelled crisp. Her Pathfinder was parked beneath a massive pecan tree in the rear driveway. More dead birds were littered over its hood, and a cat disturbed from its lunch mewled at her with a flash of angry eyes. Dejah skirted the feral animal and hopped in the SUV, starting it right away.
She pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road of the neighborhood, passing Ray’s inert form in the blood-smeared mail truck. As she drove by Carrie Revis, she noticed the girl was kneeling next to the body on the grass. When Dejah realized it was the body of the girl’s father, Brian Revis, tears misted her eyes, and she felt a pang of guilt.
Dejah pulled slowly up to the front of the Revis house. Her throat ached at the girl’s loss. Her behavior seemed absolutely despondent. Carrie had her face buried in his stomach, arms wrapped around him, convulsing with sobs. She heard the sounds of the girl sniffling.
“Carrie,” she said. She left the Pathfinder running but opened the door. Dejah stepped onto the sidewalk and half-crouched, reaching her arms out to Carrie.
The girl still had her face buried in Brian Revis’s abdomen. A dark stain spread out beneath him. Dejah hadn’t noticed it before now.
Oh my God, he’s dead. Killed?
She’d suspected it when she’d seen him from across the street, but now she could see the blood that saturated his mid-section, soaking into the gray sweatshirt in deep shades of purple.
That wasn’t there before.
“Carrie,” Dejah said again, catching her breath and freezing with her arms out to the girl.
Carrie Revis raised her head. Her small pale face was smeared with fresh blood. Dark eyes shone black like marbles. Her teeth were crimson, thick with shreds of tissue. A strand of vein stuck to her chin, a flap of skin hung from one side of her mouth. She had torn open her father’s sweatshirt and eaten a hole in his abdomen. As Dejah watched, the girl reached absently into the cavity and pulled out a wet cord of intestine, a gelatinous membrane which might have been part of the man’s stomach peeking through.