Apocalypse Nation, Chapter 7

(For previous chapters, please go HERE.)

Amy Brinn had always been a daredevil. Once, when she was eleven, she took a group of kids on a search for nuclear waste on the Air Force base. In her backpack, next to a bag of peanut butter sandwiches, she’d packed a Swiss army knife in case she ran into trouble, and a box of cherry bombs. After she was caught, she explained to the MP that the cherry bombs would do little damage, and were for diversions only, to disorient her opponent and allow her team to escape. Her team was a group of sixth graders that had become convinced that the air base in their backyards was stocked with illegally stored nuclear waste taken from the nearby shipyard and buried. The rumor had been around as long as Jack could remember. Every time a truck with fifty-gallon drums strapped to its bed turned into the base gates, someone would comment or speculate on its toxic contents. What was impressive about Amy’s dedication to discovering the illegal storage of hazardous waste was the planning and implementation. She’d worked for months, keeping detailed notes, vetting everyone with impressive diligence. Each team member — all of them good kids concerned about the environment — carried a disposable camera, which Amy had bought at the drugstore with her own money. They’d accessed Air Force property through a hole in the back fence. Once inside, they’d skirted the runway and ran down along rows of hangars toward the area they intended to inspect. Once they were spotted, they ducked into the woods, retreat being the better part of valor. One of her team, a redheaded boy whom Amy had known since kindergarten, twisted an ankle. The others wanted to leave him, but Amy would abandon no one. With Justin limping between them, they attempted escape through a parking lot. When they were spotted, they tried to hide behind some corrugated sheds. A group of young corpsmen sauntered over to see what was happening only to have cherry-bombs flung at them. Once they were apprehended and taken home — no charges were pressed — they all promised to keep off the air base. All except Amy, who promised nothing.

When Jack answered Emily’s phone, he was greeted with a burst of static. The room was murky and Stanton’s gun cabinet loomed opposite the bed, nearly touching the ceiling, its doors protected by half a dozen locks. Jack’s body was coated with the thick, acrid scent of smoke. And then Amy’s voice, a flurry of words breaking into the static, as if she was standing in a storm, or sticking her head out of a car’s open window as it sped down the highway. Jack spoke but Amy didn’t respond. Finally, there was a long silence. His stomach dropped — contact made and so quickly lost — but a clearer channel followed the silence.

“Doug?” she said.

“No,” he said. “Jack.”

There was another long silence. Perhaps the call had been a dream?

But no. “Jack?” she said. And again, “Jack?”

“Yes,” he said, “I came back.”

“You came back?”

Behind the question was another, unasked: why in the world would you come back? What would make you do such a thing? Her question hung between them. He didn’t know how to tell her about Emily. “Where are you?” he said.

“In Florida. Emily didn’t tell you?”

“No,” he said.

Another silence followed Jack’s response. He imagined Amy’s face as she processed his “no.” If she’d been alive, Emily would have filled him in immediately — there would be no mystery. Amy wasn’t good at keeping her emotions from blossoming across her features. She’d be holding her forehead, squeezing the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes, tilting her head. The last time Jack saw her, she’d had very short hair. She was lean, trim as a long distance runner, but not so tall as Emily. She processed information with her whole body, every muscle taut as a wire rope.

“I just spoke with her a little over three weeks ago,” Amy said. “I spoke with her and she was good. She was good. She was staying with Doug Terry and his family. Did you know they’d been seeing each other? She was good when we spoke. How about mom and dad? Have you seen them?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Jack said.

“Jesus,” Amy said. “What the hell is going on up there?”

A sharp pain that radiated in waves between his forehead and his stomach. The silence between them wasn’t awkward. There was no blame. There was another burst of interruptive static and when the line cleared, Amy said “Rose is healthy” before another long burst of static. He listened to the sound of his heartbeat thumping hotly in his earlobes before Amy’s voice returned. She was speaking quickly and she didn’t realize that he’d heard very little of what she’d been saying.

“…haven’t heard from Val….maybe dead…might have killed her.”

Jack shook his head. He didn’t know anyone named Rose. He didn’t know why anyone would want to kill Val. He didn’t know why Val would be talking to Amy. He blurted out, “It was me. I killed Emily.” His sister’s name caught in his throat. A fly landed on the windowsill and Jack settled his attention on the insect so that he might control the sudden tide of emotion welling behind his eyes. He clenched his jaw. When Amy spoke, her voice was hardened, but not accusatory.

“It was your first, wasn’t it?” she said.

The pronoun was indicative of how she viewed the situation. Emily wasn’t a “she” and he hadn’t killed “her.” He’d killed a scab. Emily was long gone, even if she’d only been infected a short time.“Yes,” Jack said.

“It’s the only thing you could have done. She couldn’t have been infected too long. She was so careful. She never went out at night. Doug was super vigilant. Maybe it was a mosquito. Best to put her body to rest.”

“I didn’t hear a lot of what you said,” Jack said. “Where are you?”

“I’m in Florida,” Amy said, “Rose is here with me…”

And those were the last words of their conversation. The phone went dead with a sudden finality. There was no number to call back. The screen read “unknown caller.” He hadn’t had the chance to tell her that Val had been seen in Portsmouth. He’d had no chance to ask who Rose was or why they were in Florida. The South was destroyed; its population killed or migrated or infected. How could anyone be safe? And how did she get past the Raleigh Line, the most lethal place in the entire country, perhaps the entire world? Anything that approached the Line from the south was destined to be obliterated. Human? Too bad. Waving a white flag? Tough. Guzzling water while sitting in a full bathtub? Good-bye. Absolutely nothing came north. Why would anyone want to cross it going the other way? How could anyone be safe so far below the border?

Their brief and static-filled conversation did, however, offer Jack a direction. He’d known Doug Terry for a long time and had worked as a stagehand for him a few times at the Music Hall, where Doug had been in charge of production. He was a good an honest man with two kids. Perhaps he could track Terry down. Later, he found it hard to believe that he was ever as dense or naïve as he had been that morning, buoyed by the knowledge that Amy was alive, armed with knowledge of Emily that might help him discover what had been happening to his family while he was gone.

Stanton drove Jack to Doug Terry’s house. Emily’s car was parked by the curb. Jack jingled the keys he’d rescued the night before. Despite the simple and bland breakfast Stanton had provided, Jack’s stomach swirled. Stanton helped him stock his pack with the sorts of things he might need on a day about town. He urged Jack to replace his revolver, but the small gun felt good in Jack’s palm and he was more comfortable simply pulling a trigger than worrying that he’d loaded the semi-automatics correctly and chambered a round and checked the safety. He promised his friend that he’d soon accept basic firearm instruction, but for now, he needed to keep things simple. Stanton packed two water bottles and several packs of homemade trail-mix — his mother’s secret recipe. He claimed he could survive for weeks on the mix alone. Stanton was on his way to visit his mother, but he was worried about leaving Jack.

“Go see your mother,” Jack said, “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“You’ve been playing with matches,” Stanton said. “You need supervision.”

“I promise not to burn anything,” Jack said.

“If you’re planning more arson, you’d better wait for me to get home. I don’t want to miss the fun. You have the key?”

Jack patted his pocket.

“Okay, then Smokey,” Stanton said. “Be careful. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Jack wouldn’t have expected an emotional farewell from Stanton, but it struck him that things being the way they were, he might never see his friend again. Each time he saw a person, it might be the last time.

“Thanks,” he said. “For everything.”

“No need to thank me, brother,” Stanton said as he pulled out into the street. The Harvester’s engine roared, Stanton waved, and then Jack was alone. The houses on Park Street were close together, all of them boarded and protected. There were more residents here than in Stanton’s neighborhood. He went to Emily’s car and unlocked the door. A gust of heat poured from the interior. He set his bag on the driver’s seat, one of thousands of abandoned cars in this town alone. He scanned the street. No people. No scabs. He left the gun in the backpack. He should have asked Stanton for a holster.

“What do you want,” a woman said.

Jack looked toward Doug Terry’s house. There, behind a filthy screen was an older woman. Her hair was grey and dry and hung past her shoulders. She wore a heavy silver necklace. She gazed at Jack as if he wasn’t really there, as if she was thinking of other people. Jack caught a whiff of stench, but it was faint and it could have come from anywhere. The woman had a rifle in her hand, stock on the ground, fingers around the barrel. Two children stood behind her, both of them with wild, uncombed blonde hair.

“I’m looking for Doug Terry,” Jack said.

“Doug isn’t here,” the woman said. “Do you know where Doug is?”

“If I knew where he was,” Jack said, “I wouldn’t be looking for him.”

She didn’t say anything else. She stood and stared from the doorway. She lifted the rifle a few inches and then let it settle back into its place as if she was just adjusting her grip. The kids’ eyes were bright. They both looked to be nine or ten, a boy and a girl. They wore small satchels around their necks.

“Doug lives here, right?” he said. “Are you Doug’s mother?”

“I’m Doug’s mother,” the woman said, like she was trying to convince herself. Or trying to remember.

“And Doug’s kids?”

“Doug has two children,” the woman said. The children stared silently at Jack.

“I’ve known Doug for a long time,” Jack said, “but the last time I saw his kids, they were real little, two or three maybe.”

“Doug has a boy and girl,” the woman said.

“I know. Is that them standing behind you?”

The woman tightened her face into a knot and turned slightly to look down. Neither child looked at her. “Doug’s children are named Halley and Levi,” she said.

“Of course,” Jack said. “I couldn’t remember their names.”

The woman leaned the gun against the doorframe. Jack breathed a little easier. Who wouldn’t greet strangers with a certain degree of cautiousness? Would he himself volunteer information about his family or friends? The house was boarded. The sunlight cast a sharp, clarifying square of light into the small space beyond the three people gathered in the doorway. The children didn’t take their eyes off Jack. He leaned into the open car window and took a water bottle from the bag. He took a long swallow and poured some into his palm and splashed it on his face. The children licked their lips.

“Doug isn’t here,” the woman said again. She didn’t want him to come any closer. He didn’t blame her.

“I’m Emily Brinn’s brother,” Jack said. “I heard she’d been staying here.”

“Emily Brinn’s brother,” the woman said.

“Yes,” Jack said. “This is her car. I’m taking it.”

“Car,” the woman said.

Was she suffering from dementia? She rattled off her responses in the same tone Emily and his parents used, as if the words came from a far off island, a distant rim of memory, syllables retrieved from a fragmented, warped disk. He’d already learned to err on the side of safety. He would get no closer. “Do you expect Doug anytime soon?”

“Doug isn’t here,” the woman said.

“Are you all okay? Can I get you anything?”

The children pushed against their grandmother.

“Have you seen your father today?” he said. He studied the children’s movements, first Halley, and then Levi. After their initial push, they stood still as statues. Their eyes stayed wide and their mouths opened and closed, but mutely. Jack held out his water bottle, “Thirsty?” he said.

“Doug isn’t here,” the woman said. She lifted the gun again. Jack, strangely enough, found this to be a comforting sign. He’d read stories about scabs keeping children alive. Young scabs rarely lived too long. They were slower and more easily fought off and their bodies were more fragile. They offered little by way of benefits to the clans in which they lived. Even as food, children were of scant use. Given a choice, a hungry scab would take the larger adult meal every time. If this household had been infected, then these children might be prisoners of a sort. But there were no reports of scabs with rifles.

“I’m staying with Stanton Grimes,” he said. “Do you know him? He lives over in the Heights.”

“Heights,” the woman said. She nodded, which Jack also took comfort in. She appeared more relaxed, less confused. The children, however, were still on high alert, and looked as though they might bolt if given the chance.

“I’m taking the car,” he said. “If you see Doug, would you please tell him that I’m looking for him? I’ve only just returned home and I’m trying to find my sister Amy. My sister Emily and parents are gone. They’re dead.”

A wave of pity rolled over the woman’s face. She’s a good, careful woman, Jack thought. She’s lost people, too, including Emily. Amy said she’d been staying here. Perhaps they’d even grown close. Her confusion was perhaps a sign of her grief. “Emily,” the woman said. She held her nose into the air and inhaled a long time. Her eyelids fluttered.

Down at the far end of the street, two people left a house. Both were covered from head to toe in heavy clothing, long sleeves and skullcaps. Both carried assault weapons. They scanned the street as they moved. The passenger paused briefly at the car to study Jack’s situation, but only for a moment. The sun was already baking the asphalt. He turned again to Doug Terry’s house and saw movement behind the old woman and two children, a shifting, glimmering body that was there and then was not. Shadows. Fear. The woman was closing the door. He caught one last glimpse of the children’s blank faces as the door clicked closed and then he climbed into the car and pulled away from the house.

He went downtown and parked at a different entry point, Market Street by the Sheraton. Market Street narrowed just after the hotel and wound between the thin brick buildings that marked the beginning of the historic district, snaking its way downtown. He took out his water and was drinking it as he approached. But the morning was bright and he wasn’t soaked. The guards were more anxious. They held their rifles at chest level and asked him who he was and what he wanted in town. They wanted to him to answer questions, to see whether or not he faltered. He told them he was trying to find Doug Terry.

“I used to work for him at the Music Hall,” he said. “I grew up in Portsmouth. I went to Portsmouth High School.”

“Who’d you have for senior English?” one of the guards said.

“Mrs. Janning,” Jack said.

“Me too,” the guard said. “What year did you graduate?”

“Two thousand two,” Jack said.

“Two thousand eight here,” the guard said.

Jack poured some water into his hand and splashed it on his face.

“That’s good,” the guard said, “but you still have to walk through the mist.”

They opened the gate and remained alert as Jack walked beneath the misting device. It was a homemade contraption, hundreds of small holes drilled into PVC pipe. It created not so much a mist as a drizzle, a sprinkling, but it was effective. He was sufficiently dowsed to ally any suspicion. He waved to the guards.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No problem,” two-thousand-eight said. “Mrs. Janning is still alive, you know. If you get a chance, go down to the school and see her. She’s still teaching The Great Gatsby.”

For a moment, they were just two guys that might have went to high school together. Knowing that Mrs. Janning was still teaching Gatsby brightened Jack’s mood. It was silly, but he reminisced about her class as he trudged up Market Street. He hadn’t wanted to read the book, but Mrs. Janning’s bright and clear-eyed lectures illuminated the story so perfectly that he could still recall whole passages with surprising accuracy. He’d left that class with a new understanding of literature, of wealth, of need and greed. He had doodled inside the cover of that frayed and dog-eared paperback, a geometric swirl. If Ms. Janning was teaching, then the high school was still open. He couldn’t imagine how vast the array of precautions must be to protect those meandering halls. Perhaps the PTA had a Minister of Defense, bake sales that augmented the bullet budget.

Downtown was crowded, but not as lively as it had been the rainy day before. He walked through the square and past the North Church and the remnants of the Colonial Theater, it’s marquee now advertising the specials for the restaurant that occupied the old lobby. A few blocks later, he came to the Music Hall, a massive brick building that dated to the nineteenth century. The place had always been busy, it’s stage full of workers wearing black, racks of lighting equipment, hulking speakers, microphone stands, artists sound-checking and preparing for shows. In the winter, the building was drafty and cold, and in the summer, it was an oven, but people still came. After the shows, the crews would gather in the lobby to snack and drink beers. Jack tossed those memories about as he made his way down Chestnut Street, but the theater itself was boarded and the chain and lock on the front door rusted, as if it hadn’t been opened in a long time. He walked around the corner and down windy Porter Street to the stage door. It had opened a crack. Another chain, this one on the inside, kept the doors from opening too wide, but he could see onto the cavernous stage. Any light that came through the opening dissipated quickly in the darkness. Beyond the initial darkness was an unexplainable deeper darkness. The theater had not a whiff of its old warmth. Jack backed away from the door and retreated downtown where he could maybe find some people to help him piece together Emily and Amy’s stories, to sort out how everything fell apart so quickly, but by the time he got to the square, he only wanted to leave. Doug Terry’s children and their anxious eyes fueled his restlessness. He’d been distracted for a moment by Gatsby and the Gate and the homemade misting station and the long streets and the empty theater and the promise of answers, but another looming issue — Val, his child — had yet to be confronted. Even if she was long gone, Jack could row to her house and search for a different sort of closure.

He made his way back to the roadblock. A crowd had near the fence. From two blocks away, he heard the commotion. Two-thousand-eight was shouting at a family to back away from the fence. Beyond them loomed the huge scrap-metal pile along the water’s edge and beyond that, the tugboats bobbed against the quay. Further off, a series of smokestacks belonging to the gypsum plant loosed thin streams of steam and particulate. The family was attempting to gain entrance. A man, woman, and two teenage sons. Jack heard someone say that they’d refused to walk through the misting station. The guards continued shouting. The family stood their ground.

“They’ve got it,” a woman next to Jack said. She wore a scarf around her head and her hair peeked out above it in damp tufts. She herself had had no problems going through the process, talking to the guards, walking through the misting station. She spoke to no one in particular, but to the crowd, to whomever would listen. “The family was coming up the street behind me as I passed through the mist,” she said. “Look at them, look how hungry they are.”

To Jack, they looked as normal as Doug Terry’s mother. If they were infected, it had been recently. The father demanded entry but the more he spoke, the more furtive and impatient he sounded. He told the guards that they wanted to go home. Two-thousand-eight, just a few years removed from high school, kept his rifle trained on the man and said, “All you have to do is walk through the water and you can get home.”

The group refused and the woman wailed. How many times a day did this happen? How often did two-thousand-eight have to raise his weapon and demand that someone retreat? Again, Jack’s stomach roiled, an acidic wave of regret at having left France. There was no logical reason for him to be here, to have returned at all. It was all emotional, the reasons he left in the first place, the reasons he returned, and there was absolutely nothing for him to…but there, in the midst of all the shouting and the misting and the gathered crowd, he found himself thinking about his conversation with Amy. Amy was in Florida with Rose. Maybe because he was too distracted by the unfolding events to think about every detail on a conscious level, but there was a swift parting of the haze, just enough for him to realize who Rose must be. Rose was his daughter. The way Amy spoke, she just assumed he knew. A second earlier, he’d longed to be in his apartment in France. Now, there was a competing voice telling him that there was indeed a reason for him to be here: his child.

The child was Rose.

He needed to find her.

Head South, for her.

Two-thousand-eight was the first to fire his weapon.

And then all the guards fired. The scabs were riddled with bullets, motionless on the pavement. The crowd, including the woman who’d arrived just before the scabs, cheered. There was no attempt to conjure sympathy for the twice-dead. Everyone present had plenty to mourn. Within moments, the crowd dispersed and Jack passed through the gate, heading to Emily’s car.

“Hey, two-thousand-two,” the guard said, “good luck out there.”

Jack turned and waved. “Thanks,” he said, “and you as well. If you see Mrs. Janning, tell her Jack Brinn still remembers Gatsby, okay?”

“I will,” the guard said. Jack turned and walked past the newly twice-dead family. He didn’t look down. He was now on a different mission.

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