Apocalypse Nation, Chapter 5

(For previous chapters, please go HERE.)

Jack called from the only payphone in town and Stanton answered on the first ring. He was surprisingly unsurprised to hear Jack’s voice. “Jack,” he said, “I knew you couldn’t stay away from your country of origin, home of the free and all that shit.” Same as he ever was: carefree, but realistic; open to all possibilities; always on the bright side.

Fifteen minutes later, Stanton pulled his giant truck to the Congress Street Gate and waved at the guards. They returned his gesture. He spoke to them as Jack made his way through the rows of fencing. Stanton was very tall, six foot ten, give or take, and this, coupled with his bedroom eyes and a trimmed mustache, gave him the appearance of a stretched Clark Gable. Leaning his elbow on the truck’s window, he was relaxed and grinning. He drove them away from town and down near the river, peering into the yards of the houses that lined the road. He waved to each passing car and once to a woman working in a garden. Two red Doberman Pinschers sat alert next to her. “That’s Julie,” Stanton said. “She’s got the best vegetable garden in town.”

A few moments later, they turned onto Stanton’s street. Most of the houses in the Heights sat close to the road, but Stanton’s sat back about a hundred feet on a little hill. The houses were brick with gabled roofs. Built for shipyard workers during WWI, most were duplexes with five windows on the ground floor and five on the second floor, quite small, modeled after village housing in England, constructed in the hopes of providing a community for the workers. They turned out to be quite sturdy fortresses, easy to defend, cheap to heat, and perfect for a small family or single person living with the threat of the tox. Stanton slowed to a crawl as they approached the slope of the gravel driveway.

“I heard you had your own private ghost town,” Jack said.

Stanton scanned the houses before he answered. He said, “Not so much a ghost town as a beach town during winter. Some folks still live here, but everyone keeps to themselves, stays inside unless they’re going off for work. Lots of folks with kids had to leave, especially the little ones. It looks ghostly, but most of us feel safe. The ones that left might come back if we don’t let it get tore up. I don’t plan on going anywhere.”

The truck idled in the driveway. Jack started to open the door, but Stanton put a hand on his shoulder. “Wait,” he said. “Always better to err on the side of caution. Just want to see what’s what before I step into the world.”

They waited a few moments and then Stanton, sensing some green light that Jack couldn’t — the street and the surrounding yards and boarded windows looked no different than they had when they parked — opened his door and stepped out, pistol in his hand. Jack stepped out too, armed with only damp clothes and bug spray. From the barricaded windows, sprinklers and hoses dangled through holes cut into the plywood. The street was silent, but Jack tried to maintain his alertness, his head on a swivel. Stanton walked calmly to the front door.

Inside, the space was more armory than house. The living room was devoted to guns. The afternoon sunlight sliced through the portals cut into the protective plywood and the room shimmered and pulsed with their steely readiness. Stanton disarmed himself before he sat down. He set his pistol and holster on a shelf next to a bowl of loose change. He said, “I should tell you that I’ve seen Val. That’s why you came back, right?”

Jack was suddenly exhausted and weak from hunger and uncomfortable in his wet clothes. “I came back for my family,” he said.

“I wish we could’ve talked first. I was driving over there last week.”

“I’ve already seen them.”

“I didn’t even think about trying to find you. There are so many people gone.” “What about Amy?”

“Amy I don’t know about. Heard she was mixed up in some voodoo, but most of the stuff you hear about people these days are lies and you can’t trust the truth, so you gotta take any voodoo talk with a giant grain of salt.”

“Moe told me she saw Amy with some heavily armed black guy and that they were buying provisions.”

Stanton laughed and sat down. He opened a case in front of him that was stocked with a wide variety of bug sprays. He said, “Amy was always sort of a daredevil. Maybe she’s on safari.”

Jack wasn’t sure what this meant. Stanton stared at him and then stood and stretched and walked around the room and checked the windows and barricades. The small room was stuffy, thick with hot damp air, the walls close. Jack experienced a brief bout of claustrophobia. His eyes grew more accustomed to the uneven lighting. He watched Stanton work his way through his security checks. When he was done, he turned to stare at Jack again. “Yes,” he said, as if he’d waited long enough in silence and wanted to continue the conversation. “Safari.”

Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Enlighten me,” he said.

“Amy wouldn’t be the first to take the hunt to them. Maybe she was restless.”

“Maybe,” Jack said, “but would she just leave?”

“There are worse things,” Stanton said. “In light of her options, I’d say going on safari would top the list of decent alternatives. And if she was with someone who’d been out there a while, the chances are better. The more you study the scabs, the better chance you have of keepin’ on.”

“What about you? You ever go on safari?”

“I’m a stay-at-home sort of scab killer, JB,” Stanton said. “Besides, you know how much I’ve always liked forts. This here is a natural culmination of years of childhood fantasy.”

It was true that Stanton had always loved forts and not just the real forts that dotted the New Hampshire and Maine coasts — Fort Stark and Fort McClary and the like — but any sort of stronghold. There was a cave down near the tracks that all their childhood friends had been afraid to explore — everyone except Stanton, who’d dropped down into the hole without a rope or flashlight. They all huddled at the opening, stomachs knotted. The seconds between his vanishing and the sounds of his voice rising from the depths were some of the scariest moments of Jack’s childhood. “Hey,” he’d shouted from deep in the cave, “I can see you idiots.”

That was Stanton.

In addition, there were any number of scrap-wood forts he’d constructed as a early teen. Some grew into two story structures anchored to trees with ingenious systems for opening doors and hidden windows. His fascination with “hiding out” had been peculiar, but now, given all that had unfolded, it was prescient. His home, which he’d owned since his early twenties, had the quiet security of one of his scrap-forts, only the house was brick and his preferred method of repelling attackers had shifted from a bucket of rotten apples to dozens of firearms lining the walls.

“I see you still love guns,” Jack said.

“What’s not to love? Who couldn’t love this?” He held a short rifle with a fold out stock that clicked into place, the barrel opening wide as a quarter. “Riot shotgun,” he said. He presented it as if it was a small pet, a toy dog better suited to ride in a purse. “Of course,” he admitted, “this stays home. This’d be what I’d reach for if they ever got in. I could blast the hell out of some scabs in close quarters with this baby.” He zoned out for a moment, retreated to some mindful space as he checked the weapon, performed a service or inspection. Jack got the feeling that he went through the same routine every night. After a few minutes, he set the gun in its spot and pointed to a trunk.

“That’s some of my ammo storage,” he said, “but the rest is in the basement. Ammo is the currency of the future. Some grenades in that case there, flares on the shelf, knives and machetes in that tote, handguns in the flat cases under the couch, flashlights next to the door. These valves operate the hoses and sprinklers around the perimeter.”

“All that’s missing,” Jack said, “are pillows and blankets to make this the most awesomest fort ever.”

Stanton glowed with pride when his work was praised. “It’s pretty cool, right?” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m happy with the way the country is, but I’ve been training for this shit my whole life. It’s nice to know those hours building and supplying and hiding weren’t in vain.”

“So,” Jack said, “you saw Val? Recently?”

“Just earlier this week,” Stanton said. “I was over near Newcastle so I had to pass by her folks property and there she was.”

The Timmons family had long owned a house built on a small island near the outskirts of the harbor proper. The only way to or from the house was by boat. It wasn’t a particularly large house, but it had stature lent to it by geography. Aside from a small patch of lawn, the land was all rock and accumulated seaweed. At high tide, the water surged against the granite footings. Val and Jack sat for long stretches on those granite breakwalls, feet hanging above the water as they planned their lives, salt spray coating their lips, Val’s soft hands in Jack’s, not a care in the world.

“Val was at her house?” he said.

“Technically.”

“Is the house gone?”

“The house is fine, but I didn’t see anyone inside. Val was on the deck of a yacht anchored close by. Two goons were with her and they both had serious, shoot-first-ask-question-later sort of faces.”

“Moe said she was with some rich guy named Duke Pollard.”

“Could be,” Stanton said. “It was a big fancy boat, so big that it had another boat on a platform on the back. Way bigger than my house.”

“Was she in trouble?”

“Some kind of hostage? I don’t think so. She was talking to someone on shore. There were guys around the house.”

“Moe told me Val had a daughter,” Jack said. “A daughter that was mine.”

“Interesting,” Stanton said, “but I didn’t see a kid. There could’ve been one, but I wouldn’t know. I would’ve looked through the scope, but I didn’t want to draw any attention.”

“How would Val get mixed up with him?” Jack said.

Stanton shrugged. “You get with people who can help keep you safe,” he said. His crisp tone suggested he found the question naïve. Only someone long removed from a difficult situation would ask such a question. Many alliances must now exist that never would have before the tox.

“Of course,” Jack said. “Do you have people to keep you safe?”

“Look around,” Stanton said. “Do I look like I need anyone to keep me safe? Of course, I need more than guns to survive. I have a community. The bigger question is about you. Where are you staying? I take it home isn’t an option.”

“I shot and killed Emily,” Jack said. “Right in the driveway.”

Already the shooting seemed a dozen years distant, an action committed by a younger, stupider version of himself, news he’d already grown tired of delivering. The words left a vacuum in his stomach. Stanton came and sat on the couch and together they stretched their legs toward the ammo-trunk. On the far wall, a large flat-screen television hung, surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of DVD’s, many unopened. A breeze rattled some chimes. Crows yammered outside.

“Damn,” Stanton finally said, “Emily was a sweet girl. Pretty as hell. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you had to do that. It sucks no matter how you look at it. Your folks were nice people, too.” Here, he trailed off again, but his burst of compassion arrested Jack’s budding numbness. Jack’s throat swelled and tears pooled in the corners of his eyes.

“It’s not just that,” he said, speaking with his eyes closed, trying to stave off more tears. “I also lost my gun.”

“Gun?” Stanton said. “I got you covered in that department. And you can stay here until you get sick of me, or I get sick of you. It’ll be like we’re kids again, out in the woods behind the senior center, except this fort is armed to the teeth.” The sun was low now and the light coming through the portals faint. Stanton stood and opened a wall-mounted circuit-box next to the front door. He flipped a few switches. Outside, a barrage of bug-zappers hummed into operation. Jack stood and joined his friend as he surveyed the glowing electrical mosquito barrier. “It’s my own private force-field,” Stanton said. “I got a few different kinds of anti-mosquito machines out there, including a couple that run on propane, but propane has been short this summer. Supposed to get more in a week or so. Either way, we need to grease up.”

“Grease?”

“Mosquito goop,” Stanton said. “Before we go out. Grease the hands and face, long sleeves, hat with netting, gloves if you can stand them. It’ll be sweaty, but it’s better than the alternative.”

“Cauterizing yourself?”

“Searing the bites? I find that gross. Prevention, in this case, is better than the cure. Don’t get me wrong. I always carry this.”

He removed a small case from his back pocket. Inside were two very small knives and a zippo. “I’ll sear a bite if I have to,” he said, “but I’d rather not.”

“What about repellant?”

“We use that too. Spraying is my last layer of defense. I have some pure Deet that’ll melt plastic.”

“And you wear it on your skin?”

“Skin ain’t plastic,” Stanton said.

“Point taken,” Jack said. “Why not just stay inside? Curl up in a mosquito net and get some sleep? The cops told me to stay inside after dusk.”

Stanton took an AR-15 from a rack and ran his hand over the stock. “Stay inside?” he said. “And miss all the fun?”

Stanton drove past the malls and over the bypass toward the power plant. He said nearly everyone had generators and that it was generally accepted that electricity wouldn’t flow as easily as it once had, at least not until the pendulum swung back to normal. Despite it all, Stanton believed that such days were on the horizon. The idea baffled Jack. Home less than twenty-four hours and any idea of normal had been blasted away. He could imagine no return path.

“The old normal?” Stanton said. “I didn’t say anything about the old normal, but I still believe that eventually we’ll beat the tox and get back to not shooting things all the time.” He turned down a road that lead to the river. His headlights highlighted their solitude. Against the night sky, the white plumes of power plant exhaust loomed, magnificent as the Eagle Nebula photos. It was odd to consider the Hubble orbiting above them. The chances were decent that it would outlast them all, continuing its lonely mission until the planet was cold and barren, a window to the universe for an audience of zero.

They came to a crossroads. On either side, plots of land once cleared for new construction had gone to seed. Tall grasses undulated in the breeze. “So,” Stanton said, “you want to see how things really are? I heard there were some scabs down here last night and if we’re lucky, they might still be wandering around.”

“Lucky?”

“Lucky is a relative term, like normal.”

“What do you want to see them for?”

“Just to mess with ’em a little.”

It was difficult to read Stanton’s face. The mosquito netting was pulled back over the brim of his hat, but his eyes roamed in the shadows. The dashboard lights were dim and the headlights off. They drove in near-blackout conditions. The tires hummed on the road and soon they were passing through a little clump of houses still occupied by the original owners. “They’re organized down here,” he said. “They look out for each other.”

“Won’t they think it’s suspicious that we’re driving around?”

“They won’t care. Scabs don’t drive.”

“If there are scabs down here, why don’t these organized folk take care of them?”

“Because they’re smart,” Stanton said. “No need to kill a couple of scabs and risk losing a neighbor or two. If they see one walking down the street, they’d probably shoot it, but no need to go hunting if you’ve got a family to think of.”

“Hunting, like us?”

“Don’t worry princess,” Stanton said, “I won’t make you get out of the truck.”

The truck itself was pretty impressive, a flat black International Harvester reinforced with diamond-plate aluminum. Stanton had affixed cages outside all the windows aside from the windshield. A bank of high-powered lights was mounted across the roof and a heavy-duty winch welded to the front end. Inside, he’d riveted holsters to the doors, just below the handles. A case of water sat between the seats. The backseats had been removed and replaced with two long storage bins: a survivalist’s wet dream of weapons and food and enough gear to facilitate a full on attack or a long retreat. In the very back were two spare tires and several cans of gasoline.

“It’s all about knowing your enemy,” Stanton said. “Because I’ve studied them, I record their patterns. I can predict what they’ll do because I’ve begun to understand what they are. Plus, they change. They act differently now than they did six months ago or two years ago.”

He opened the glove box and pulled out a notebook and a small pair of night-vision goggles. “Look here,” he said and handed Jack the notebook, a hardback orange field-book into which he’d recorded hundreds of scab observations in minute detail: dates, times, numbers, general appearances, level of frenzy, any recognizable faces.

Jack said, “I don’t see why they don’t send out a tox team to kill these groups. I also can’t believe how much observation you’ve done.”

“I call it scab-connaissance,” Stanton said. “And tox response does get sent out, but only in larger areas — NYC, Boston, the important cities. But you’ve been downtown, right? You see any Task Force uniforms? Zero is how many you saw. Plus, the scabs always move. If you want to find them, you generally have to be quick. But look!”

Ahead, some figures were moving, stumbling almost like drunks.

“Just on the other side of that field is the power-plant,” Stanton said. “They have a massive electric fence. I’d love to herd them against it and watch them fry.”

“I can shoot,” Jack said.

“Even if I was comfortable with that,” Stanton said, “two people isn’t nearly enough. You need at least ten, twenty in a perfect world. They’re so tricky and once you start shooting, they wake right up. There’s no telling how many are grouped here, either. Could be two, could be fifty. Fifty is not a good number.”

When they were at the edge of the field, concealed by honeysuckle bushes, Stanton set the truck in park and handed Jack a pair night vision goggles. He pulled a second set from behind the seat and they both raised the devices to their eyes. It took a few moments for the image to coalesce. The videos on YouTube rarely showed groups of scabs as their cycles were slow. It wasn’t sensational enough, far less urgent than a scab in full-on frenzy, but startling in its own way. Through the glasses, they appeared as pale white blotches in a green field, almost formless, a part of the landscape, stunted trees perhaps or mannequins forever still in some photo-shoot. Jack questioned Stanton’s courage for a brief instant — even he could kill such sluggish, milquetoast creatures — but soon enough, their body language evolved. They went from nearly still to twitchy to flailing, all of them grouped in twos or threes, reaching out to each other like of chimps grooming for lice, stroking each other’s arms, holding each other’s faces, looking into each other’s eyes. What followed next was disturbing on a whole new level. After touching each other with surprising gentleness, the scabs started kissing each other, not small pecks on the cheek or a light brushing of lips, but a full on mashing together of their mouths.

“What the hell?” Jack said.

“Gross, right?” Stanton said. “First time I saw it” — he flipped open his notebook — “about five months ago, I wrote down: Are they fucking kissing each other? No one would believe me, but it’s not a joke.”

They watched a bit more, at least several dozen scabs moving and touching and kissing. “Look closely,” Stanton said, “at what it really is.”

Jack focused on one pair of scabs — two men — locked together at the lips. At first, it certainly looked like intense kissing, but when they parted, their mouths, which had been covered with scabs, were as pale as the rest of their bodies.

“Whatever is happening,” Jack said, “is deeply disgusting.”

“They’re eating their own scabs,” Stanton said. He laughed at the absurdity of the moment.

“That is without a doubt one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen,” Jack said.

“It’s means they’re getting feisty. They don’t start mashing their scabby diseased mouths together until a frenzy is growing. After they eat, they won’t be so free with their affections.”

“What do we do now?”

“I make a few notes and then we’re off. No need to make a scene here tonight.”

“Should we warn the people in these houses?”

“They probably already know what’s going on. As long as they don’t do anything stupid…”

“Like drive around and study scabs?”

“Ha, ha,” Stanton said as he scratched some data in his book and calmly put the journal and the glasses back in their places. He turned the truck around and returned slowly through the enclave of houses.

“Everything looks battened down,” he said. “Only the dead are moving around outside tonight. And us, of course. There’s another place I want to check.”

He drove along the outskirts of town and behind the landing field of Pease Airport, a long empty road they took when they were younger and wanted to find a place to drink beer away from the adults, always pushing further into the woods, searching for better hiding places. Now, Jack couldn’t imagine wanting to leave the road at all. He wanted to be around lots of people drinking water. Stanton, however, pulled off the pavement and drove for a time on an old section of dirt road. The truck was nearly as wide as the path and the headlights pulled them deeper into a narrowing tunnel. Branches scraped the sides of the truck. Bugs swarmed the headlights and ricocheted off the windshield. The grease and bug-spray and layers of clothing kept him uncomfortably warm, but did little to quell the fear that a single mosquito might find its way inside. They emerged from the path into a clearing above a cluster of brick buildings in a once fenced-in compound. Beyond the compound was another line of trees and then the flat, fenced expanse of the airfield itself. Beyond the airfield was the bus-station and beyond that, Jack’s old neighborhood. Two scabs stumbled around the buildings. Stanton didn’t bother turning off his headlights.

“We’re too far and too high,” he said. “We’d be gone way before they got up the hill.”

He turned on the bank of halogens that lined the cab. The scabs didn’t even register the new brightness. The moved between the two buildings, waiting for whatever chemical signal that instigated their hunger. Soon, more scabs came from the trees to join the first two. Jack didn’t need the binoculars to see the thick sores on their lips, each mouth awful and gaping. And he didn’t need the binoculars to recognize his parents walking together side by side, his mother dragging her injured foot. They came to the edge of the buildings and stopped, both of them slow, staring at the ground, skin pale in the halogen light. Above, the moon appeared through a break in the clouds.

“We won’t stay long,” Stanton said. “They’re very still. That motionlessness happens right before feeding time.”

“Why did they come out here?”

“Who knows why they do anything. Sometimes they stay close, mill around in parking lots. They’re dead, not stupid. Their chances of getting killed are greater if they hang out at the mall.”

“But also the chance to feed,” Jack said.

“I don’t know,” Stanton said. “Maybe you can interview them about their system.”

“Can my father see us? He’s staring right at us.”

“He’s looking at the light, just like a moth.”

“They’re all looking at us.”

“I do think you’re correct, JB. Maybe they smell us. Some of them are ramping. Look at that one leaning against the building on the left.”

A scab beat on his thighs with his fists, the hunger spreading.

“Why don’t they attack?” Jack said.

“Not prudent,” Stanton said. “Look at your father.”

William Brinn stood with his arms over his head. He began to roar. The longer he stood and bellowed, the more scabs came toward him. There were several dozen all together.

“Is he some sort of leader?”

“He’s obviously strong,” Stanton said. “Maybe he wants them to pool their energy so that they can feed better later. Keeping the group alive.”

“They’re already dead,” Jack said.

“Their survival instinct is pretty sophisticated for a bunch of corpses. Maybe be just wants to show them who’s boss. Some of these scabs are probably from below your garage. I saw your father last week. I didn’t quite place him at first, which was strange because I’ve known him since I was little. Maybe I didn’t want to recognize him.”

“Did you see him here?”

“It was down near the YMCA. He was coming up from a ditch. I slowed down as I passed him, but he had seven or eight of his buddies with him.”

“Can we just shoot him?” Jack said. He was overcome with a desire to simply be rid of the things resembling the two people who’d taught him right from wrong, fed and supported him, sat next to his bed on feverish nights. The tox had now been around long enough that he could intellectualize the fact that his parents were gone. Here walked soulless things. But those intellectual notions meant squat as he looked down the embankment at scabs convening at an abandoned air-force compound, their mouths shredded and blistered, teeth and eyes jaundiced. A mixture of rage and undiagnosed sadness coursed through Jack Brinn. He wanted the feeling to end. Stanton kept his cool.

“We could,” he said, “but that’d unleash hell. There’s so many of them now. See how they’re rocking? We have about a minute, if the normal routine holds. If we shoot, they’ll be here in no time. I could get us out of here, but that’s a shit storm I’m just not prepared to deal with tonight.”

He dropped the truck into reverse as he spoke. Jack’s parents turned toward each other as though they might kiss. But it wasn’t a kiss this time, not of the sort living couples offered each other. There was no real recognition between them, just hunger. They sucked and bit at the abscesses. The noise from the gathered scabs below grew into a rumble and then into a mixture of screeching and barking that could be heard through the windows and over the air-conditioning and throbbing engine.

“Let them do their thing,” Stanton said. “You and I can go home.”

“Can we make one more stop?” Jack said.

Stanton nodded and gunned the engine and they shot back into the leafy tunnel and out onto the old roads.