(For previous chapters, go HERE.)
Everyone was damp and jittery and afraid.
One of the Burkoe compound workers had been infected and had killed two field workers near the sheds that held the landscaping equipment. It was the first time that anyone had ever been infected inside the compound and the place was on high alert. To make matters worse, an unexpected power surge had knocked out most of their communications. Stanton and Benji pulled Jack into one of the meeting rooms just off the front entrance. They wanted to leave as soon as possible.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” Stanton said, “but I just at this very moment grew tired of good food and religiosity. I want to get to Florida, help you find Amy and Rose and then get the hell out of the south and back to good old New England.”
“Amen,” Benji said. “Things are getting weird. I heard one woman say that she’d seen a dude that wasn’t there. That sound familiar?”
“I saw the same thing,” Jack said. “And despite their hospitality, they think we’re lying. They don’t believe me about Amy and Rose. Plus, they have some connection to Pollard. They’re rivals. It’s all too hairy.”
“What do you want to do?” Stanton said.
“I want to get Benji’s truck running and I want to get out of here.”
“You reading my mind,” Benji said. “I’ll go to the garage and see what I can see.”
“I wouldn’t trust their mechanic,” Jack said. “If he says there’s no way to get it running, we just need to take one of their Suburbans.”
“They are nice trucks,” Stanton said.
“I like my truck,” Benji said.
“Either way, let’s try to be gone by morning, okay?”
The entire house remained on high alert and each and every light was burning and guards were placed at every door and the kitchen staff prepped food and coffee for everyone. There were water stations at every turn. The Burkoe plan — the safety and security of the ranch, the manual, the serene hopefulness of Hope — was now being implemented by a mass of twitchy, nervous, sleepy-eyed citizens roused from whatever dorm or house or room in which they were staying. Those not actively doing tasks were gathered in the main sanctuary, crowded far past capacity with families leaning against each other, aisles strewn with sleeping children draped with blankets. Through all of this, teen boys and girls dressed in white shirts and black pants carried trays of water and baskets of pretzels like indentured flight attendants. Only the bald orphans, Halley and Levi included, were missing.
Jack and Stanton came into the room and took their cups of water and pressed dampened facecloths to their cheeks and tried to find a place to stand. Even the production room held people. The curtain had been pulled open and people crowded the hallway. Inside, people worked the equipment, turned dials and adjusted sliders on the complicated sound boards. Everyone’s hair was slick. There was an air of excitement about it all, as if this was a day that everyone had prepared diligently for but had never expected to actually arrive. Those gathered didn’t look happy so much as justified; all of Burkoe’s prognostications were coming to fruition. Following him and his path, they’d ended up in the right place and with the right people and were submitting to the right plan and then Burkoe himself, Father, took to the pulpit and asked for their attention, asked them for their strength and their prayers and their unity in the face of God’s most recent test, asked them for their confidence, assured them that although this was the first outbreak inside the compound, that the plan they had adopted and accepted and implemented and lived by was solid and that they’d prepared for the outbreak.
“We will prevail,” he said.
Harlan Burkoe kept talking but Jack lost track of what he was saying. He stepped into the corridor beyond the sanctuary and moved to the back of the house, hoping that he might find his way to his room without being seen. Stanton followed behind him and together they walked by the storage rooms and pantries and security stations. Since they were already damp, no one paid them much mind. He hadn’t seen Cray since he’d stepped from the car. Finally, they came to an exit with no guards.
“What’s next?” Stanton said.
“Get to the truck? I need to get my pack. I need to try and get the kids, but I don’t know if I can.”
“What do you mean get the kids? You can’t bring the kids to Florida.”
“They can’t stay here,” Jack said. “I’ll explain later. There’s something strange going on with the kids. Have you seen them at all since we got here? They shaved their heads and kept them in a separate building. There must have been two dozen kids under constant surveillance.”
“Still, they’re better off being watched here than where you want to go.”
“It isn’t right,” Jack said. “This place isn’t right. Have you seen the warehouses down the road? It’s like area 51 down there.”
“He’s right,” Clara said.
Jack turned around and there she was, his backpack slung over her shoulder. “I packed your things for you,” she said. Her hair was slicked back. “You both need to get out of here,” she said. “I can hear alarms coming from half the buildings. There’s talk of scabs in the streets of Hope.”
“How is that possible?” Stanton said.
“I didn’t stay to listen. It might not be true. I got out of there and went looking for Jack. I’m going with you.”
“We’re going south,” Jack said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Clara said. “I’m not staying. I can take care of myself. You saw Cray taking care of himself tonight, right? Pretty impressive? I have the same training. I can do anything he can do and I know I can do anything you can do, so the question shouldn’t be whether or not I’ll be in danger, but whether or not you’ll be in danger without me.”
“You know guns?” Stanton said.
“More than you, I suspect.”
“I doubt that, but I bet you know more than this one here.”
“Okay,” Jack said, “Enough talk. Let’s make this happen before things get even more locked down Benji went to the garage. Can you take us?”
“Come with me,” Clara said.
They were outside under a bright moon and cutting across the backside of the main building. Although most people were inside the sanctuary, there was no lack of activity outside, either. Some families in the guesthouse were just leaving to go inside the big house, surrounded by heavily armed Burkoe security. Since Clara was with them and everyone was dripping wet, the patrols merely gave them a quick once over with a flashlight and then moved on. They passed the building where the orphaned children were housed. Inside, a red light was flashing beyond the first security door.
“How can we get in there?” Jack said, “and what is that flashing light.”
“Just an alarm,” Clara said. “They have different alarms for everything. I don’t have any clue how you can get in there tonight. They’re going to be locked down tighter than ever before.”
“We have to get the kids,” Jack said. “I don’t want to leave them here.”
“Good luck with that,” Clara said. She kept walking.
Jack paused a moment to study the building. All of the windows were blacked out and the only sign of life was the blinking red light. Just as he was about to turn, he saw a figure move around the side of the building, inside the fence. He wasn’t sure it was a figure exactly, and when he looked straight toward where he thought he’d seen it, nothing was out of the ordinary. He started to turn away and he saw it again, more from the corner of his eye than anything else, a shimmering, a shadow that disappeared as soon as he’d spied it. He saw another similar shadow further on, one slipping between two golf carts before evaporating, just like the figure in the apple trees at the Tubbs’ farm and on the train. Perhaps there were stranger things than scabs, or different types of scabs. The virus mutated once, why not twice, why not a dozen, even a hundred times. While they were busy killing regular scabs, the world would be overrun by evolving scabs that flitted into and out of any space without any trace. Besides himself and a couple of kids on a farm, no one seemed to be admitting seeing fantastical people appearing and disappearing at will.
There was a great deal of commotion at the garage. Many of the trucks were gone, but a few were still inside being stocked and several more sat cockeyed in front of the open doors, a blockade. Inside, they found another group of Burkoe security surrounding a body on the floor.
“Infected?” Clara asked one of the guards.
“Not this one,” he said. He pointed to Jack and Stanton. “It’s their friend. He was in the back looking at his truck when it happened.”
Benji was on the concrete. At first, Jack thought he was lying in a pool of spilled oil, and he’d simply slipped and fell. But it wasn’t oil. He’d been stabbed and left to bleed out. Two Burkoe paramedics had opened his shirt and were attempting to halt the flow of blood. Even from a distance, Jack could see that it was a lot of blood. He had no idea how much blood a body contained, but it was immediately apparent that it would take a miracle to save Benji Tubbs. Stanton went to his friend and held his hand.
“Benji, man,” he said, “hang in there brother.”
Benji struggled to breath. His mouth overflowed with blood that ran down his chin and neck and pooled on his chest and poured onto the concrete. There were two large wounds — one high on his chest and one further down, near his stomach. He was trying to speak. Jack moved up behind him to listen.
“…the kids…” he said.
“We’ll get the children,” Stanton said. “We’ve already talked about it. Me and Jack will keep them safe. You’re going to be okay. This is nothing. We’ll bring the kids back to your place as soon as you’re better, okay?”
“…the kids…” Benji said.
“We were just helping them, I know,” Stanton said. “I’m sorry for getting you mixed up in this, but it’ll all be okay. You’re going to be okay.”
Benji tried to move. He pulled one hand up to his chest. The paramedic had plastered compression bandages over the wounds, but they seemed insufficient. He gurgled more, spit out of the side of his mouth, pressed his hands against the bandages and said again, “the children.” Then two men arrived with a rolling stretcher and ordered everyone out of the way and they quickly loaded him into the ambulance parked just outside.
“I’m going with him,” Stanton said. “You’ll have to find the kids. If you find a way out, just leave. I know where you’re going. I’ll find you. And if I find out you had to leave without them, I’ll make sure they’re safe.”
And then they were gone and the garage was emptying and the remaining trucks pulled away. Clara and Jack were left alone. Jack studied the ground where Benji had been stabbed. A set of footprints led to the back door. His revolver was heavy inside his pack. He would follow the footsteps outside and then walk to the children’s dormitory and demand the kids’ release. And if he saw anyone with blood on their hands and shoes, he would shoot them, no questions asked.
“We should go this way,” he said. “Whoever did this went out the back.”
“You shouldn’t go anywhere but back inside,” Cray said.
He walked across the garage carrying an AK-47. His suit was dusty and he was hatless for the first time that Jack could remember. His hands were bloody.
“Being doing some dirty work?” Jack said. He motioned towards Cray’s hands.
“I always do the dirty work,” Cray said, “but if you’re asking if I stabbed your friend, you have the wrong idea about me.”
A rage unfurled inside of Jack, from his bones to his skin. The scars from Pollard’s beating throbbed. “I heard you and Burkoe talking,” Jack said. “I know that you’d rather take care of us sooner than later.”
Cray didn’t give any indication that he was surprised to hear that Jack had somehow eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Father has a way with his words that you might not understand,” Cray said.
“I know it was you two who gave the order to kill this truck so we couldn’t leave.”
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Clara said. “No one gets to leave here easily.”
“Now sister,” Cray said, “it’s all done out of love.”
“You do whatever father asks of you.”
“Maybe what happened,” Jack said, “is that you came in here and saw Benji trying to get that truck started and decided to make sure he never left.”
“Wasn’t it just a short time ago that I informed you that I don’t lightly kill the living?”
“Who said it was lightly? And Benji wasn’t your brother.”
“If he was breathing air, he was my brother,” Cray said.
“Maybe you just wanted to scare him. Maybe you didn’t mean to kill.”
“Oh, no…if I’d wanted to kill him, I’d have killed him. I don’t make mistakes with killing. I know the difference between killing and hurting and scaring. Hurting is just a means to an end, to get the sinner to see the light. Once a sinner crosses over to the light, the hurt stops. I speak from experience. Shining a light over darkness is my true purpose.”
“I’m tired of your God talk.”
“It’s the only talk I got, brother.”
“It’s true,” Clara said. “He has no other way to see the world.”
“Don’t want and don’t need no other way,” Cray said.
“So what’s going on between you and Pollard?”
“There is a longstanding animosity between Cray and Pollard,” Clara said.
All three paused to consider Clara’s comment and their silence allowed the commotion of the compound to filter back to them and echo through the cavernous garage. Benji Tubbs’ truck sat, hood up, engine undone, wires disconnected. Never did Jack feel more distant from his sister and his child or more helpless as a man or brother.
“Cray won’t even talk about Pollard,” Clara said. “Too complicated.”
“I got nothing to say concerning that level of greed,” Cray said. “Turns my stomach…”
His sentence was interrupted by the staccato alarm that began radiating through the compound loudspeakers — three short bursts followed by three more. Cray turned away from Jack and Clara and spoke into his radio. He nodded his head. He growled his one-syllable answers and paced in front of the bank of red toolboxes lining the far wall. When he returned, he said, “All hands. Something big is coming. They got communications working again. There’s alarms from all over town. All citizens are in mandatory lockdown. There are multiple hordes in the streets. They just came out of nowhere. Worst of all, there’s more activity inside the compound. It’s time to get you back, Clara. Jack you’ll need a rifle for this one.”
“This isn’t my fight,” Jack said. “You’ve delayed me long enough from my fight.”
“This is the only fight you got,” Cray said. He opened two large cabinets on the far way and freed two rifles and two packs containing ammunition and small arms. “One for each of you,” he said, “but Clara is only armed until we get back to the main house. Mother and Father want her inside.”
“A proper lady shouldn’t be caught blasting the undead, I suppose,” Clara said.
“I’m just doing what they ask,” Cray said. “Please, Clara, this isn’t the right time to make a feminist stand. You’ll get to kill something real soon, I promise. This is just about protecting you and surviving.”
The sharp pops of gunfire came from outside followed by the barking of disciplined, urgent orders from combatants. There was no screaming, no panic. “I wish I’d had the chance to study the manual,” Jack said.
“Stick with me, just like at Jennings,” Cray said. “Fire at anything that looks hungry. Clara, you know the drill.”
There was no more talk. Cray turned on his heel and moved to the open garage door. Three trucks zipped pas them and away from the main compound and kicked up a mantle of dust. Cray held his hand up a moment and raised his rifle to his shoulder and took a bead on the dust. He fired only once and after a moment, a scab with a ripped up face and half of a right arm came stumbling from the other side of the road. He had a new hole in his chest. He stretched out his hands and tried to balance. Clara put another bullet into his brain and he fell to the ground.
“I never thought I’d see it,” Cray said. “Fighting right here at home. Let’s hope that all that training ain’t lost on folks.”
They moved together alongside the garage and then up the road and into the shadow of the next groups of buildings. The place was lit up like high noon; each building had floods at each corner. All of the windows of, without exception, were covered and drawn. They hugged the buildings and then Cray motioned them out into the center of the street. He kept his attention straight ahead and Jack and Clara instinctively guarded right and left. They turned their heads to guard against an attack from behind. They passed several twice-dead, both apparently had been playing basketball when they were infected. They wore matching Miami Heat warm up suits. They both wore Air Jordans.
They came to a fork in the road. Go right and they’d be at the main house in thirty seconds, no muss. To the left, they’d be at the children’s dorm in about the same amount of time. Cray held out his hand again and Jack suspected that he was about to take aim upon and kill another scab that he couldn’t yet see, but after a moment, Cray lowered his hand and said, “Little detour. Sorry Clara, we’ll get you to your cozy little room in a few minutes.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Clara said, “this is the most excitement I’ve had since…well, ever, really.”
“Don’t be silly,” Cray said. “Stay alert. This isn’t a game.”
While they were talking, they moved toward the children’s dorm. They passed through the mini-neighborhood that Jack and Clara had passed through earlier that morning — their walk belonged to another era entirely. The houses were holiday bright on the outside, but they all appeared to be vacated. Near the corner of one of the houses, they saw an arm lying in the middle of the road. The fingernails were clean and the fingers small, the arm of a young person, most likely not yet twenty. A few yards away, a scab body lay sprawled against the side of a house, a grisly tableau that begged for deduction. The scab had been shot, but it also looked as though he’d been severely beaten. His face was a mashy pulp.
“I hope that’s not Tina’s arm,” Clara said.
“Should we bring it?” Jack said.
Both Cray and Clara looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We could ice it, in case we find the owner.”
He looked down again at what remained of the arm, torn off below the shoulder. The stump was covered in dirt. Didn’t they reattach arms all the time? Wasn’t that a thing?
“No one’ll need that arm again,” Cray said, “but I get your impulse. Unless it was on ice and we had a specialist that could sew it back on and get it right, it’s useless. But there’s no need to leave a free meal lying here.” He bent down and picked the arm up and walked to the house. On the front porch was a gardening box. He opened the lid and dropped the arm inside. When he turned around, he was looking into the barrel of a gun. Jack had raised his weapon.
“Not the right time for payback,” Cray said.
Jack moved the barrel just slightly to the left and fired. Cray didn’t even blink. The scab that had been coming from the side of the house didn’t make it two steps. This time, Jack’s bullet found its mark directly between the scab’s eyes. He looked down at his gun. “I do believe I just found my weapon of choice,” he said.
“Nice shooting,” Cray said.
“I thought you were going to shoot Cray,” Clara said.
“I don’t shoot my breathing brothers,” Jack said.
“Good to know,” Cray said. “Now, let’s get to where we need to be.” He pointed further down the road toward the children’s dormitory. The front gate was swinging wide open.