(For previous chapters, please go HERE.)
His parents had been honest and compassionate and capable people. William Brinn ran a landscaping company for over thirty years and Cheryl Brinn taught special education at New Franklin Elementary School. While he was in France, Jack struggled with the fact that he’d abandoned them, but that struggle was mitigated by his ability to walk the streets without being eaten or infected. At the sound of his father’s voice, fear flowed through Jack in a wave. But it wasn’t until his mother’s hand found his opposite shoulder and she echoed his father — “Jack” — that he lost control of his bodily functions. The piss ran down his legs.
It was their nonchalance about their dying daughter that frightened him most. Jack’s legs shook. Another peal of thunder shook the sky. The air tasted of ozone. William Brinn was completely still. Cheryl Brinn stepped around to face her son. Her body was slack, eyes dulled by the low ebb of her feeding cycle, skin blotchy, starbursts flaring faintly across her cheeks. Scabs did not breath. Their lungs filled with the same goop that flowed through their veins, but air still found its way into and out of a scab’s body. This stale, stagnant air was referred to as scab-wind, but in reality, “wind” was too tame a word for the cloud that clung to his skin like creosote. She brought her face close to his. She too had grown lean, hard, drawn tight from lack of water. Her arms were covered in scars. She wore an old dress stained brown. She ran her fingers down to Jack’s hand, which she squeezed in much the same reassuring way that she’d done thousands of times when he was a child. She then released him and walked to Emily. Cheryl Brinn was barefoot and her left leg and foot had been badly mangled, as if caught in beneath a lawn mower. To say that it had healed would have implied that scab bodies could regenerate tissue, which they could not, but the blood had dried in fat ribbons that reached from her calf to her toes. She pulled the foot behind her. Emily gurgled and spat and tried to sit. Cheryl Brinn turned toward her son. Her eyes grew brighter. A growl escaped her lips. She took Emily’s right arm and began dragging her toward the garage. Though her foot was damaged, she exerted no more effort to pull the body than a child might a blanket or a stuffed animal.
William Brinn’s hand never left Jack’s shoulder. He spun his son around almost gently. Jack was embarrassed to have pissed his pants in front of his father, as if his father might suddenly chastise him for being a scared little boy.
“Jack,” William Brinn said. His lips twisted to reveal his teeth, now turned almost neon green. He strained his facial muscles, pulled his lips back even farther to expose gray gums. He drew his son closer, their faces just inches apart. He stared at Jack as though he were trying hard to reclaim some old connection, a flicker of recognition gone more quickly than it arrived. The infection would eventually return William Brinn to a feral blank slate in which no words existed, no previous life. Scabs that survived the transformation, or that evaded the hunters and the response teams and the guns of regular citizens, became quite strong, very fast, and cunning, much like the mutating infection that had changed them.
Jack had seen footage of a human captured just few hours after being tox-infected. In time-lapse photography, the transformation from initial infection to undead monster — fast, angry, aggressive — was startling. The scab in the video had thrown itself against the bars of the cell until it appeared destroyed. When the guards entered the room, guns drawn, it had moved so quickly that they barely had enough time to pull their triggers. The scab attempted to feed even as they emptied their clips into his body, throat, and head. Afterwards, with the scab in a heap on the cell floor, the guards sat against the wall trying to catch their breath. Luckily, outside of areas with high concentrations of scabs, only a small portion of the infected made it to the final stages. William Brinn wasn’t there yet. He’d had the look of a scab that had been slowly burning only about a week or two. Vestiges of his old life still pushed against the infection. It might be several weeks before the conversion was complete.
The stages of infection, however, didn’t matter now to Jack. His father was a scab. Nothing would change him back. He might’ve lived normally for a day or so, fought the illness as he would have a flu. It was different with every person, but the infected rarely understood what had happened. They entered a state of blissful ignorance until the best parts of themselves were vanquished, burned and razed to the barest components, transformed into a hungry, contaminated sack of toxic plasma. The knowledge of these things only came later for Jack. Now, in his driveway, his panicky heartbeat trumped words.
Behind his father, Cheryl Brinn dragged Emily to the rain barrels. William Brinn took Jack’s hand and pulled him along. Thunder rolled again and lightning flashed against the thunderheads. At the final rain barrel, Cheryl Brinn stopped and lifted a lid. The barrel was coated with blood. She peered inside and having apparently seen what she wanted to see, lifted her daughter into the air as if she weighed no more than tissue and dropped her inside. She landed with a splash, her head and shoulders sticking from the open top. Cheryl Brinn twisted her daughter’s neck and pushed down hard until her daughter was nearly out of sight. Emily, nearly bled out, looked resigned. She opened and closed her jaw as if she wanted to speak. His mother placed the lid back on the barrel. Jack knew that he now had one of two fates: he might wind up in a barrel next to Emily, or his parents would infect him and he’d be stuffing people into these barrels. Stuff-ee or Stuff-er. Neither one an appealing option. His parents walked him down the sloped back yard toward the lower level of the garage, a sandy storage cellar, a place where they’d always kept the lawn mower and camping gear and ladders. Now, those items, along with boxes of paperwork, garden implements, and Christmas decorations were thrown into the yard, tossed about and ruined.
The cellar’s green door was open. It was their nest, dark and fetid. Things moved inside. Many things. He knew then that he wasn’t to be eaten, but infected, brought into the clan. The illness would be introduced through his mouth by a newly infected scab. The old movie trope — one bite makes you a zombie — had little to do with the tox. Over time, the tox grew stronger in each scab, but less virulent. Scabs needed new scabs to carry the infection. That’s why the search for a vaccine brought hope: a scab might eat you, but without the ability to infect, the population would mature and stabilize, tough to kill, but finite in number. If his parents had passed the communicable stages, instinct would guide them and they’d have a carrier waiting, perhaps even his sister Amy. And then he’d be the carrier, extending the family name. Many scabs infected friends and family rather than eat them, although there was no identifiable pattern. Jack had found such reports hazy, boring, research-procured scab trivia. Until now.
They each kept one hand on Jack’s shoulder and one on his arm. They closer to the door they came, the more Jack struggled. They had no trouble controlling him. From the inside, the hissing and snarling grew louder. William Brinn roared into the opening, his neck muscles bulging, his face reddening. The scabs quieted. Their noises shifted from excitement to acceptance. Jack was being introduced as one of them, not dinner. The nest grew still but no less awful. Jack was the only one making any noise, his scream began as an ineffectual gargle. He dug his heels into the grass and pushed against his parents, blank with terror. He dropped to his knees and his parents were forced to readjust their hold. He wiggled and squirmed and broke free of his mother’s fingers. From the inside, the chatter began again — if you can’t contain him, let us try. His father roared.
And then the rain began.
Miracle? Providence? Dumb luck? Jack couldn’t fathom why the sky, threatening rain since long before he got off the bus, decided to open at exactly that moment. Both of his parents, confronted with the choice of getting wet and holding onto their prisoner, let their attentions waver. Jack twisted even harder, breaking free and rolling away into the yard away from the cellar door. He crawled his way to his feet and then he was simply running. The rain came hard and fast, a good New England thunderstorm, and though his father tried to give chase, Jack made his way to the pile of garden tools and picked up a shovel from the pile and swung it just as his father neared. The shovel blade connected flat with the side of William Brinn’s face. The vibrations raced from the shovel handle into Jack’s shoulders. His father stopped his pursuit and shook his head, pausing just long enough for Jack to turn and run toward the back fence.
His mother had not pursued. She ran directly to the dry cellar. His father bellowed incoherently, but whether he was more aggravated at Jack’s escape or at the rain drenching his skin was unclear. The hydrophobia made little sense. Water had no harmful effect. Jack had seen one YouTube video in which a scab was pushed into a pool. The water wasn’t deep, but the scab thrashed and squealed like a hog at slaughter. When he got out, however, he was simply wet, not scalded or steaming. His father might have chased him through a fog, or even a drizzle, but this rain soaked Jack clear to the skin in just moments. By the time he reached the fence and through the gate, his father had returned to shelter. Not hearing any pursuit, Jack slowed and looked back. He’d run into the woods where he’d spent many days playing, back when the worst thing any kid had to worry about was being late for dinner, or tearing a hole in a good pair of pants. The door under the garage was open, but the scabs were hidden. Beyond the garage stood the house, still and empty, looking much the same way it had for two hundred years. His parents had bought and renovated the place and Jack had always imagined that he’d call the place home for as long as he lived. Now the whole structure, much like his own body, appeared fragile and impermanent, doomed. But he didn’t allow himself time to pine over plaster walls and clapboards. The rain wouldn’t last forever and he wanted to be far away from this place before it stopped. He was afraid to return to the house to retrieve his gun, so instead, he ran along the old trail until it intersected with the bus station parking lot. The airfield spread out in the distance, the tarmac glistening with rainwater. Once filled with cars, the lot was now nearly as empty as the airstrip. The rain sheeted over the pavement. Lighting brightened the entire sky. Jack was drenched and the urine was, thankfully, washed from his clothes. From here, he decided to keep to main roads and walk into downtown, but he hadn’t even made it out of the parking lot before an older woman pulled over and rolled down her window.
“I suspect you’re a safe one,” she said. She kept her arm by her side, where Jack knew she had a gun.
“I’m not a scab, if that’s what you mean.”
“What else would I mean?”
Jack didn’t know what to say.
“Going downtown?” she asked.
“I suppose so. I don’t know where else to go.”
“If you got no better place,” the woman said, “downtown is as safe as it gets.” She patted the seat beside her and smiled. “Come on,” she said. “You don’t look like you’re having a banner day.”