Authors: L Valder Mains,Laurie Mains
Eloy Arizona, fifty miles south of Phoenix
Jack was frustrated. He spent hours memorizing code and practicing aiming the laser and now the time had come to act and he wasn’t sure he could go through with it. He was afraid, deeply afraid. His rational side told him he was being silly, nothing bad was going to happen, but fear spoke louder than reason. It had a way of shouting down common-sense and convincing him the worst thing possible was about to happen. Climbing in the dark, his mind occupied by this, he missed a step and barked his shin. Stumbling he threw his arms out to keep from falling and the telescope flew from his grip. It was blind luck he snagged it against the wall with his knee before it could fall to the floor below.
Eyes tearing, breathing raggedly, softly cursing, he tried to rub his shin but found there was no room in the narrow attic stairwell to reach down with his pockets full of stuff and the telescope in his hands. There was nothing to do but continue up. He reached the top step and opening the door hobbled onto the landing trying to ignore the pain in his shin as he began to thread his way towards the skylight. The sun had set hours earlier but it was still sickeningly hot inside the cramped space the air dense and barely breathable after a full day of desert sun. He could smell, almost taste, last years dose of
on the plastic Christmas tree roasting in the corner. The room was redolent with the chemical stink of faux pine and plastic tree and heavy dust, he was pretty sure if he had to breathe the toxic mixture much longer he would puke. His stomach clenched thinking about it and he briefly considered which direction to toss. The feeling passed.
Sweat stung his eyes as he moved through the tilting stacks of cardboard boxes, past dusky outlines of forgotten furniture, to reach the cleared space below the skylight. He stood beneath it peering up. The streaky glass made it difficult, no, impossible to see if anything was outside. Standing motionless in the shallow cast of thin starlight he held his breath and listened hard staring up unblinking at the dark beyond until his neck hurt. He did not see anything. He did not hear anything. His stomach churned again, this time from anxiety, the acid etching dread into mucous membranes; it felt like his whole body was trying to convince him to turn around and head back to the safety of his room.
Untucking his tee-shirt he used Yoda’s upside-down image to wipe sweat from his face.
‘Do or do not, there is no try.’
“What the hell.” he spoke aloud, angry with himself for being such a chicken shit. Gathering his courage he reached out and brushed his fingertips along the bottom edge of the skylight searching for the cool metal of the latch. He found it and peering up through the streaked glass hesitated; he did not hear or see anything but his dread of the imagined horrors beyond was more compelling than the clear reality of his senses. He waited, stalling, uncertain what to do as a fat drop of sweat trickled down between his rigid shoulder blades adding to his discomfort. It was the need to breathe that forced him to act; his head, throbbing, felt like it would come apart at any moment and his lungs burned from the struggle not to inhale the caustic air. Steeling himself he unlocked the clasp and pushed the skylight open to the night.
It had been easy coming up in daylight carrying the things he needed for tonight but now, alone, facing the darkness, he was terrified. He waited for what he was certain would be his end, breathless, unable to look upon the horror that would leap in, he closed his eyes.
He waited. Nothing happened. Cold dry air fell in from above cooling his face easing his fears. He drank deeply of this gift, grateful for the crisp tonic and grateful too that nothing but air had come in from the night. Without taking his eyes from the opening he reached out and searched the stacked boxes beside him for the garden stake. He found it and used it to jam the skylight open; he did not want a gust of wind to come along and slam it shut behind him. He nudged the kitchen step-stool into position below the opening and cautiously stepped onto the first rung. He stood on tiptoes popping his head up just high enough and long enough to scan the roof in both directions. The roof was clear.
He let go of the breath he’d been holding and, grabbing the telescope, scrambled up the steps and out onto the roof. The scope in one hand, and balancing with the other outstretched, he circus-walked to the top stopping to peer over the ridge checking the downslope on the far side. It was clear.
So far so good, he thought. Placing one foot on either side of the peak he shuffled old-man-style to the far end of the house where he sat on the cold shingles. He kept back from the gable end, straddling the ridge with legs splayed for balance, he was afraid of being spotted from below. It was uncomfortable, he felt exposed, perched like a sweaty gargoyle on the ridge, the prickly grit of asphalt shingles digging into his damp palms. He worried the scratchy sounds his shoes made could be heard below. He had been alone for a long time and the sound of his footsteps on the tiles seemed unnaturally loud to his ears.
He consciously tried to relax, took a deep breath, and gazed up at the vast desert sky. It was clear, cold, and lit with countless stars. It was bright after the inky darkness of the house and, looking at the Milky Way towering overhead, he took comfort in its familiar shape.
‘Billions and billions’
he murmured. Checking his watch he realized it was time to get ready. He laid the telescope down on the shingles holding it in place with his knee so it would not slide off when he leaned back to take the laser from his pocket. He slid the laser tube inside the metal clamp he glued to the scope in preparation for tonight and used a tiny screwdriver to draw the clamp tight, securing it to the scope.
Last August he found a Maker site online which featured an interesting hack for lasers. It claimed to boost the output power by a factor of ten, curious, he ordered the materials on-line and made the modifications. With the new circuitry and larger power supply the laser became surprisingly powerful in short bursts but tended to overheat with continuous use. The enhanced light beam was very intense, he discovered how intense when it set his bedroom curtain on fire. That was the reason he put the laser away and forgot about it until tonight; and now that increased power made it perfect for what he was planning.
Picking up the scope he adjusted the tripod putting its rubber feet securely on either side of the peak. Holding it steady while sighting along the outer edge of the barrel he loosened and adjusted the position of the laser. He needed to operate the laser’s switch while looking through the eyepiece. Aiming the fifteen inch telescope with one hand was difficult enough without the additional task of repeatedly pulling the trigger. He spent the last two days practicing and had become, if not great, at least proficient at doing both. Attaching the gang of nine volt batteries to the wire clip he let the elastic wrapped bundle dangle freely below the scope. The bundle was too large to fit inside the housing but, wrapped as they were and held firmly by the wires, he was not concerned about it falling off.
Removing the dust caps from the ends of the scope he put his eye to the eyepiece and aimed at the mural on the side of Thomas Jefferson High School. The school gymnasium sat on a rise three blocks north and by starlight he could just make out the shape of the two rearing stallions that framed the school crest. He touched the switch. The laser fired and he noted where the light touched the building and, being careful not to move anything, he looked through the scope and fired again. This time he saw the green dot at the extreme top right of his field of vision just above the right stallion’s ear.
He knew roughly how far out of alignment the laser was and using the screwdriver to loosen the improvised mount he twisted the housing to where he thought it needed to be then retightened it. Looking through the scope he fired once more, this time the beam was dialled in nicely, hitting the center of the school crest a little above dead center on the crosshairs of the scope. He needed to know where the beam of light would hit, there was no room for error, he would be shooting at an object traveling seventeen thousand kilometers per hour.
Everything was ready all he had to do was wait. He checked his watch again to see how long it would be; he knew within a minute or so when it would appear over the Rainiers’ roof across the street and two doors down. It would start to resolve somewhere between their red brick chimney and the darker outline of the acacia tree beside the garage. The location varied a little each time but with the chart he made it was easy to calculate where it would appear on any particular pass.
He was stiff from cold, he hated being outside and vulnerable in the dark balanced awkwardly on the roof, the peak hurt his butt and he shivered as sweat evaporated from the thin material of his tee shirt. As he watched the sky over her house he thought about Mrs. Rainier. He liked her, she was fun. She was short and wore big hair to make herself taller but always wore the same crappy worn-out flip-flops which seemed to defeat the effort. The cold night reminded him of playing with Jimmy in their pool and how afterwards she would wrap them in towels as their teeth chattered and feed them one-bite-brownies.
Mrs. Rainier was nice and thinking about her made him feel good until he began to wonder where she was now. He did not see her or Jimmy when he checked their house. He knew it was possible he’d seen her while searching in town and had not recognized her. Thinking about Mrs. Rainier made him happy until his mind began to wander and then he could not stop himself, he thought about the lady in the soccer field.
This time the shiver that ran through him was not from the cold it was from the memory of what happened to her. Fighting to push the images from his mind he began to hum the theme music from Event Horizon Zero the last Star Trek movie. Experience had taught him sad thoughts were almost impossible to stop once they began and he could not afford to lose his focus now.
It was ten long minutes before he saw the first telltale shimmer in the sky. He continued to hum the theme as he picked up the scope and searched the sky over Mrs. Rainer’s house. He found it three feet to the left of the black vertical outline of her chimney. He held the scope to his eye and, focusing it, the image sharpened offering greater detail as it approached Eloy. He tracked it as well as he could attempting to keep the laser aimed at the section where he reasoned the crew was most likely to see it.
He continued to track as it came towards him and when he was happy with his aim he clicked the power switch and the laser shot its beam of brilliant light into the sky. He transmitted slowly, partly because that was as fast as he could do it, but also to give the laser time to recover between bursts. He used Morse code copied from the encyclopedia Britannica to slowly, painstakingly, flash a series of dots and dashes at the speeding object. The message he sent was;
Dash dash dot U
Dash dash dash O
Dash dot dash K
Dot dot dash dash dot dot ?
He continued repeating the sequence while tracking the spacecraft but his hand cramped after the third complete send and he had to stop. He shook it vigorously to relieve the pain and watched for a response. Searching back and forth over its length he did not see any sign that his signal had been received. His disappointment grew as he slowly traveled the length of the spacecraft once again with the telescope, nothing. The International Space Station looked like a misshapen insect dead and adrift in space; there were no lights or response of any kind.
He sighed and was about to put his finger on the switch to begin again when something big crashed in the garden directly below him. He froze. The muscles in his arms locked and his heart raced. He had trouble putting the scope down and he let it swing freely on its tripod as he groped for the knife attached to his belt. Drawing it from its sheath he held the tiny blade defiantly up to the darkness. Too terrified to lean forward and look over the edge he told himself that he would not see anything in the dark anyway. Waiting, rigid with fear and barley able to move, he listened for the sounds of movement below as his imagination conjured up monsters climbing up to get to him.
He listened but all he could hear was the intense throbbing of his own pale heart. He watched as his outstretched hand jerked wildly, jangled by the hit of adrenaline, he carved jagged fearful holes into the empty darkness. There were no more sounds from below, the night was as cold and silent as it had been moments before. He drew the first whole breath in what felt like minutes and tried to relax his death grip on the knife. His knuckles ached when he released the tension and he needed to use his other hand to peel his last two fingers from the handle. He squeezed it hard enough to leave deep painful impressions on his palm.
‘It was a cat,’
he told himself,’ just a cat.’
He nodded his head up and down wanting it to be true but his gut knew that was no cat. He tried not to visualize what horror might be down there and whatever it was he was hoping it would not try to get inside the house. Mentally he checked every door and window over and over. When he began he was certain all were locked but then doubt crept in. He wondered about the back door, did he remember to lock it? Doubt urged him to go and check but the fear of what he might find inside the house stopped him, his mind locked in a loop of indecision, and he was lost.
It was several minutes before the anxiety eased enough to allow reasoning again and when he looked up at the sky he realized the International Space Station had passed beyond the horizon. It did not matter, all he wanted to do was get off the roof and back to the safety of his room. He picked up the telescope and quick-walked back to the skylight and climbing through pulled it shut it behind him. He made sure it was securely locked before stopping and listening at the top of the attic stairs brandishing the garden stake as improvised weapon.
He was considering the possibility of spending the night in the attic, even though it would be difficult breathing the crappy air, and waiting for daylight to check out the house. In his agitated state it seemed a reasonable thing to do and then he realized there was no way to lock the attic door. He decided to risk it and ran silently through the darkened house down to his bedroom in the basement.
He slammed and double locked the door behind him then found and lit the stubby candle melted onto a dinner plate. He felt relief when the murky details of his room came into view in the flickering light of the candle. Spooked from hearing the crash in the yard he picked up the plate and held it up high peering around the room to see if anything was crouching in the shadows. He walked around checking his rocket and aircraft models to see if anything had been disturbed and stopped by the four-foot tall Saturn Five rocket. He ran his hand over the smooth surface taking comfort in its familiar feel.
His nerves were jangled from his experience on the roof and he knew he needed to calm down or he would not sleep and it would be another long night of listening to creepy house noises. He reached under his bed and found the wires for the television and clipped them onto the car battery sitting on his dresser. He switched on the television, an ancient RCA model with built-in VHS and a DVD player, and waited for it to warm up.
He hung it from the ceiling two summers ago so he could watch movies in bed. It had belonged to his grandfather Joe, it was old technology when he owned it, but it still worked well enough. For the first few days, after everything went to shit, he watched movies but grew tired of the graphic violence and meaningless hero plots. The stories did not relate in any way to his life now and they only served to remind him of the pointless existence people led.
Now he only used the TV to fend off the loneliness he felt, mostly at night. It wasn’t much but it was comforting to put on the tape and hear his Uncle Ted’s voice. Hearing a familiar voice made him feel less alone, at least for a little while. The television crackled to life and filled the room with cold TV light and the weird smell of hot dust and old electronics. He rewound the tape and pressed play and the Channel 4 Action News theme music filled the room. Once again Jack thought the news announcer looked worried.
“There has been no further information released from the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta as to the cause of the outbreak sweeping central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. It has been confirmed that CDC acting director of operations, John Wilson Cone, spoke with President McIntyre earlier today at the Whitehouse. It is rumoured that Cone recommended the suspension of all international travel and the closure of all points of entry into the continental United States.
Reports have come in that authorities in Mexico and Canada have closed their borders in an effort to stop transmission of what is being described as a plague. At this time these efforts appear to be working as there has been no cases reported in either country. The fear of this unidentified virus spreading throughout the world is very real as hundreds of thousands of people in Asia have already succumbed to the epidemic. World Health Organization officials in Zurich cited unconfirmed reports from survivors on the ground in India, where it is believed the outbreak began, that the plague is directly related to a recently developed genetically engineered bacterium.
This controversial hi-bred bacteria was designed to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere and field tests of the hybrid were being conducted in the heavily polluted city of Bangalore when the outbreak began. In an exclusive interview with NBC news earlier today Dr. Theodore Yarrows, the head of the Infectious Disease program at MIT speculated that this engineered bacteria may have spontaneously mutated into a virus or a virus like entity. Here he is now speaking with NBC reporter Bill Rutledge.”
The scene on the television shifted to the inside of an office at MIT where his pale faced uncle sat speaking with the reporter.
“Dr. Yarrows can you tell our viewers what you think may have happened in India?”
His uncle blinked at the camera and then looked away. He appeared to be confused but he collected himself.
“If the reports we are receiving are correct the aggressive nature of this outbreak is-unprecedented in human history. There are no known agents, bacterial or viral, capable of causing the effects being reported within the population of India.”
He took a long breath and it seemed for a moment he might stop speaking but continued.
“The reports I’ve seen, though at this point they are unverified, say this entity, whatever it is, has a kill rate of between 70 and 80 percent within a few minutes of exposure. This is unknown in biology, nothing I know of can kill an adult human that quickly.”
As he spoke his voice faltered and his words were tinged with disbelief, his face grew pale. It was as though the meaning of what he was saying was sinking in as he was saying the words.
“Other reports indicate 15-18% of those infected but not killed outright fall victim to another effect which is again unknown to science. It is speculated that this virus attacks and destroys much of the victim’s prefrontal cortex. Degradation to this area of the brain results in the victim losing most if not all of their higher functions. It renders them, for want of a better word, into imbeciles. In this condition these individuals will almost certainly revert to a type of, “
He paused rubbing his eyes, searching for the right words, as if there could ever be right words to describe this.
”-animal existence. There remains some hope in that 1 to 2% of the population appear to be unaffected by the outbreak but….”
He stopped and looked directly into the camera with tears in his eyes.
”God help the poor bastards.”
Jack turned off the television and disconnected the leads from the battery. He rigged his mom’s stationary exercise bike with a tiny DC generator which was designed to power a bicycle light not charge a car battery. The old technology of the television and video combination quickly gobbled up battery power and using the bike and tiny generator it took a long time to recharge the battery but lately it was worth the effort to hear a familiar voice.
The candle guttered while he was watching TV and he sat in silence smelling the acrid smoke of the dead candle listening to the tick of cooling electronics. He needed to go into town and find food but he found it difficult to leave the house even in daylight. He knew from experience that not wanting to go outside was a bad sign; it meant he was depressed. He recognized the signs, some days he would not get out of bed until mid-afternoon. It was telling that he could have anything he wanted to eat from any store in town but he couldn’t think of a single thing he wanted badly enough to venture outside.
He recorded the newscast of his uncle five weeks earlier when his mom and sister Marion were still at home and things were almost normal. It was a few days after the recording that the rolling blackouts hit and soon then there was no internet or cable television. His mom tried to act cheerful for them, pretending nothing was wrong, but he knew it wasn’t true, there was plenty wrong. He wanted to go into town and see what was happening but she absolutely forbade him going, she would not let either of them leave the house or be out of her sight.
Marion cried the whole time and their mom sat for hours with her arms around her rocking her like a baby. The last night they were all together he went to bed early; his mom promised him things would be better in the morning. He went to his room but couldn’t sleep and after a while gave up trying and played Evoked Potentials on his laptop until the battery died. When he woke it was late afternoon, he could tell by the angle of the sunlight coming through his bedroom window, and he went upstairs to see why his mom had not called him to get up. She was gone. They were both gone.
At first he wasn’t too concerned; he thought she must have taken Marion somewhere. It was later when he looked outside and saw her car in the driveway and noticed her purse sitting where she always left it on the kitchen counter that he became concerned. He was still not really worried about them until later that evening when it got dark and they still had not come home and he discovered neither of them was wearing shoes. That was over a month ago. The first two weeks they were missing he spent every day searching the town and surrounding areas but he never found them. He saw lots of dead people, maybe hundreds, and he checked them all but he never found his mom or his sister.
He checked all the neighbour’s houses sometimes stepping over the bodies of his friends and their parents and walked for miles in every direction checking houses and buildings, nothing. The stink of decaying bodies grew more sickening with each passing day but he kept searching. One morning he walked past the Eloy Seniors’ center and saw an old man standing in the flower bed outside the main building looking in through a window. The man was quite old, Jack could tell because his face was wrinkled, he was also naked. This was the first living person he’d seen but he was cautious because the man was acting strange. He stood well back from the guy before calling out to him.
When the guy heard Jack’s voice he turned and ran towards him in an odd loose limbed lope, like a chimpanzee. Jack laughed but then figured out pretty quickly that, old or not, the man running towards him might be dangerous. He easily out-ran him but the encounter bothered him. The man did not try to speak to him; he was toothless and creepy and had a vacant look on his slack features, not quite ape-like but not quite human. He kept searching but after that incident he was cautious when he saw survivors. The few people he came across were disturbing to look at and he never approached or called out to any of them. They looked crazy and were always alone and standing in odd places like behind the Safeway Store or under the Highway 50 overpass. Some were completely naked some clothed in rags but all of them were covered in filth. He did not see any living children.
The strange part about all this was he did not recognize any of the survivors he saw, he’d lived in Eloy all his life and he was certain he must have seen or met at least some of them but their faces, what he could see of them, had lost personality, humanness. They seemed like lost animals confused and running away at the sound of his car. He came across one large man that did not run away he stood his ground glaring aggressively when he drove past, he was scary but the dogs were worse.
He watched helplessly as a pack of dogs chased a woman across a soccer field. The attack was brutal and it haunted him still. By the time he figured out how to put the car into four-wheel drive and find a way around the concrete barrier the dogs had knocked her down and killed her. They ate her face; he could still see the de-fleshed bones of her cheeks and jaw vividly in his memory, it was the most horrifying thing he’d ever seen. He arrived and scared them off but he stayed in the car. He was too terrified to get out, and he sat and watched as a knob of meat, what remained of her nose, dangled by a single strand of bloody sinew from her ruined face.
What made it worse in Jack’s mind was the knowledge that the dogs had once been beloved family pets. Later, in another part of town and from the safety of his car, he watched a tan and brown spaniel cough up a piece of the woman’s face, he knew it was part of her face because there was an eyebrow attached.
After that, whenever Jack saw dogs roaming, he headed home. The night it happened he could not sleep, he became obsessed with the idea that the faceless woman was his mom and for weeks afterwards he had nightmares about the attack. The possibility played on his mind until one day he found himself in his kitchen punching the refrigerator. He screamed every obscenity he could think of as he kicked and flailed and all but destroyed the appliance. When he stopped, spent, he stumbled back and looked at the damage he’d done and he worried that his mom would be mad at him, and for a brief moment his mom was alive.
He gave up the search after that, there was no point in continuing. His daily existence had become a dizzying blur of horrific images and he came to the realization he was not going to find his mom or his sister, they were not lost. He had to accept the fact they were dead. It was not hard to give up the search; the remaining unchecked bodies had become unrecognizable piles of fetid gore. The smell of decomposing human flesh was something he would never forget. It was at that point he decided he needed a survival plan
No one was going to save him, his dad was probably dead, his uncle too. It felt like everyone on the planet was dead.
He was sitting on his bed when his eyes fell upon one of the models he built when he was in grade five. It was the International Space Station. Seeing it gave him an idea. He could try to contact the ISS. If the astronauts had not used the Soyuz escape pod to return to earth, they must still be on board which means there could be up to thirty highly skilled scientists and engineers unaffected by the plague. Maybe they could help.
Morning came and Jack opened one bleary eye and looked at his bedside clock. It was time to try and make contact again. His mind was fuzzy and he had trouble dragging himself out of bed; he slept fitfully and felt deeply fatigued. This was day number five of trying to make contact with the space station and he was feeling discouraged. He didn’t know if the laser would be visible in daylight but he was unwilling to risk going out at night. He was beginning to think the whole thing was a waste of time and he lay in bed wondering if he should bother to keep trying. He sighed; the truth was he had nothing else to do all day and trying to contact the ISS gave him hope. Without hope there was no reason to get out of bed at all. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and munched a stale energy-bar as he climbed the stairs. He opened the skylight and climbed out into brilliant desert sunlight. Shielding his eyes he walked barefoot to the far end of the roof and, gazing at the empty town and distant mountains, urinated over the side.
He sat down and pointed the telescope at the horizon and checked his watch but before he could start transmitting he saw a flash of light. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Then there was another flash and then two more in quick succession. He wasn’t sure if he believed what he was seeing. Was ISS sending him a signal? While he was wondering if it were true there came anther quick sequence of flashes.
“Yes, yes!” he shouted, recognizing the pattern. It was Morse code. His plan worked. He unfolded the energy-bar wrapper and used it to record the sequence of flashes that came over the next fourteen minutes. When ISS passed out of range he ran down to his bedroom to decipher the message. That is when the full impact hit him. The message he held was from the the International Space Station.
Hot tears splashed his hands and the wrapper as strong emotion swept over him. He read the message again out loud.
This was real. He hooped and yelled and danced around the room.
“They’re alive,” he shouted.
He fell backwards onto his bed clutching the wrapper to his chest overwhelmed with relief and more important, hope. He was elated that there were others alive, people who can think and talk. This meant he was no longer alone. He cried with relief as the unfamiliar sensation of hope washed over him. The news that the astronauts were alive revived his spirits and he understood, for the first time, exactly how lonely he had become and how desperate. The feeling of hope unleashed a wonderful reeling sensation of dizziness. He read the message over and over again his mind alive with questions. The message told him what he needed to get to speak to the crew onboard ISS. He did not know what the letters C and B stood for but he would figure that part out later. He wondered if he deciphered the message wrong and he checked it again. No it was right, the single letters C and B. He thought it must be a certain brand of radio or antennae. He recognized the part about Radio Shack and knew generally what an antenna was but then a horrifying realization struck him. There is no Radio Shack in Eloy and the nearest one is in Phoenix.
The thought of traveling that far from home terrified him. It was one thing to drive around his hometown in his mom’s car with the doors locked and the windows up but it was another thing altogether to drive fifty miles to a city with millions of dead people and find God-knows-what waiting for him. It was not a question of whether he would go; if he wanted to talk to the astronauts he had to have a radio. He would check around Eloy first to see if he could find a radio but if he couldn’t he was going to Phoenix.
Eloy was a bust, he could not find a CB radio anywhere. He was going to Phoenix. He got a sheet of paper and started planning his trip to the city. If he was to survive this adventure he needed to be prepared. He would need supplies for the trip, bottles of water, food and a map of the city. He had been to the mall where the Radio Shack was located many times but he wasn’t driving and never paid attention to how his mom got there.
One positive thing about the trip was he saw fewer survivors lately. They were disappearing, probably dying off, he thought. He hoped this would be true of the survivors in Phoenix. No matter what the risks it was worth it to have the ability to talk to the ISS. He was afraid of what he might find in the city but he was more afraid of being alone. The survivors he saw in Eloy were creepy and disgusting but they were not like the zombies in movies. They acted more like deer and except for the naked old guy they did not try to chase him; that did not mean they wouldn’t if he gave them the opportunity but he wasn’t too worried, the majority of them were pretty feeble. Thinking about the old man made him remember the dead pharmacist and, shuddering at the implications, he added a gun to his list.
His dad never owned a gun, at least not one that he knew about, and he did not think his mom would let him keep it in the house if he had. So where would he find a gun? He knew that lots of people owned hand guns but he did not want to spend time searching strangers houses. He considered going to the Sheriff’s Office but he remembered the time he got lost as a kid and had to wait for his mom to come and get him and he was still terrified of the place. One possibility, he thought, was Mr. Osterman. He coached the little league team and he was a policeman in Phoenix. He reasoned that if anyone was likely to have a gun it was him and he lived almost next door.
The street was quiet but he was not taking any chances. He got in the car and drove the half block to the Osterman’s house and parked on the lawn as close to their front door as possible to limit his exposure. He was armed with a baseball bat and the paring knife. The Osterman’s were only a few doors down but it had been almost a week since he’d been outside and he was being cautious for good reason. The last time he went searching for food he came across the body of Mr. Murray the pharmacist, he was laying in the middle of Grant Street with his insides spilling onto the pavement. A bunch of birds, mostly crows, were fighting over who would eat his entrails. Recalling the scene made him feel queasy; it was not like something on television or in a movie, this was real. One crow was perched on something black poking out from the pharmacist’s chest. It took him a little while to figure out what he was seeing. A knife.
Mr. Murray had been clean and dressed in proper clothes; he had been a survivor like him and someone killed him. The Osterman’s house was unlocked and there were no bodies inside, he knew because he was inside it a few weeks ago looking for his family. He reached for the doorknob to turn it but stopped and pressed his ear to the door listening, he heard nothing. He waited a bit longer before opening the door preparing himself for whatever he might find inside.
The living room was undisturbed and as empty of life as the last time he was there. All the homes he checked, at least those without bodies, looked like the owners had momentarily stepped out and would return shortly. He went into the kitchen and opened cupboards and drawers searching for a gun. The kitchen and living room were a bust though he did find a tepid can of Coke amongst the rotting food in the fridge. He made his way down the hallway to the master bedroom sipping the warm soda and when he entered the room he jumped back in surprise spilling pop on his shirt.
It looked for a moment like there was someone curled up on the bed but it was the way the blankets were heaped. He came in and sat on the end of the bed his heart pounding hard in his chest the room swirling. His head cleared and he got up and started searching again. He found a drawer full of shirts with one cool one that had a Phoenix Police Department shoulder crests. He stripped off his wet tee shirt and put it on and checked himself out in the mirror, it was too big for him but he liked the way he looked wearing it. Inside their walk-in closet he found a small metal safe with a combination lock. He would not have known what was inside except for the helpful picture of a handgun engraved on the exterior. He laughed when he saw it. Its purpose was to keep the gun away from crazies but the picture kinda gave away the contents. There’s no way I’m going to get this thing open, he though but when he grabbed it by the handle to drag it from the closet for a closer look the lid popped open. Great security, it wasn’t even locked. He looked inside and saw a serious looking black handgun tucked into a bed of grey foam with yellow boxes of ammunition tucked around it. He picked it up, he’d never held a real gun before, it felt good, heavy but not too heavy. He examined it and discovered out how to release the magazine and discovered the gun was loaded and ready to use. He replaced it and pulled the slide back loading a round into the firing chamber.
Slapping a serious “don’t mess with me” look on his face he swung the gun around in a wide arc squint sighting on the Chinese lamp sitting on a bedside table. The grin disappeared when the gun unexpectedly jerked in his hand and the lamp exploded in a cloud of glass shards. Holy shit I didn’t even touch the trigger, he thought. He realized, as the ringing in his ears subsided, he was going to have to be careful with it or he could shoot himself. ‘Geez talk about a hair trigger,’ he mumbled.
He figured out where the safety was and clicked it on and then tested it by trying to shoot the mattress. The gun did not fire. Satisfied it was safe he tucked the weapon into the waistband of his jeans. He used a pillow case for the boxes of ammo and loaded it all into the car. He thought that it might take all day to find a gun. There was no reason not to leave for Phoenix right away. He felt the weapon pressing against his belly but even with this newly acquired firepower he was not looking forward to the trip.
The Outback station wagon was perfect for the trip he only wished he had more practice driving with a stick shift. He bumped along slowly, grinding gears, entering the ramp for the freeway heading north to Phoenix. He did not have to worry about finding gas his mom was always a freak about keeping the tank full. He could easily make it to the city and back on what was in the tank.
Though he had been alone for more than a month it was still weird seeing the freeway with no traffic. He drove carefully avoiding derelict vehicles and various bits of debris including the bodies of people. After two hours of slow cautious driving he came to the outskirts of the city and what he saw did not boost his confidence. A towering column of black smoke rose above the city high into the dead calm desert sky. As he got closer he could see whole sections of the city had been destroyed by fire. He put up the windows; the smell of the burning city was unbelievable, like burning hair and dog shit mixed with vinegar. It was like nothing he’d smelled before, worse than the rotting corpses back in Eloy. It made his skin itch when he imagined what it was that was burning and making that smell.
He kept driving, slowing to a crawl when the smoke thickened making it difficult to see. He tried turning on the windshield wipers but it did not help. After ten minutes of slow choking progress a breeze shifted the smoke away and he saw an exit for the Shamrock Mall ahead. Looking down from the overpass he estimated that more than half the mall had been consumed by fire that was now out. The portion that remained looked okay and luck was with him the Radio Shack was in that part of the mall.
He drove onto the sidewalk and parked as close to the entrance as possible. Turning off the engine he rested for a while before picking up the gun and flipping off the safety; he would not have time to look for it if he ran into trouble. He put the window down and listened, watching to see if his arrival had attracted any attention. There was nothing moving, at least not that he could see; the whole city, just like Eloy, seemed to be dead. He put the window up and opened the door and stepping out locked the car with the remote. His back ached from tension and his eyes stung from driving through the smoke.
To boldly go where no man has gone before”,
he mumbled and, with the gun leading the way, he walked a few paces into the building. He stopped and waited while his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. What he could see of the mall looked normal, he had expected signs of looting and damage but the stores looked like they usually did, except with no people. Walking in the direction of Radio Shack he grew tense worried about the deepening gloom.
He had watched too many horror movies and his mind was not his friend. His thoughts naturally turned to those scenes where the zombie lurches from a dark corner and bites some poor slob on the neck. As he walked deeper into the gloom he made a promise to himself, if he survived this, he would never watch another. The Radio Shack was in perfect condition, the doors were wide open, there was no sign of damage, and they had a clearance sale on. He began by looking for a flashlight. He found one and tore off the packaging and loaded it with batteries.
When he turned it on the light helped to dissipate the hordes of zombies lurking in the shadows of his imagination. He roamed deeper into the store and found the section with radio equipment and discovered that the letters C and B in the astronaut’s message stood for Citizens Band. He picked out two CB radios opting for the higher priced ones reasoning that they would be higher quality. He found a cart in the back and loaded parts onto it. He took lots of batteries of all types, a high end GPS, and all the other components he would need including two extra-long whip antennae.
He wheeled everything out to the car. One item he could not get at Radio Shack was a gas powered generator. It had not been on his shopping list but he was tired of pedaling that damn exercise bike to recharge the battery and he would need reliable battery power for the radio. He drove around looking for a building supply store or equipment rental company; figuring they would probably have what he was looking for. He found a Builder Barn and went in through the open roll-up door driving up and down the aisles pushing stuff out of the way until he came to the tool department.
It was fun driving inside a store and there was no point in lugging the generator any further than he had to. He found a Honda gas powered generator in aisle seven. It had wheels and he rolled it to the back of the car then found two wide planks in the lumber section to roll it up and into the hatchback. He was hungry by the time he finished but it was getting late and the sun would be going down soon. With darkness coming and with all the smoke in the air he did not bother to look for food, not that he would be able to eat with that smell in the air.
As he was climbing into the car he heard something. He was not certain what he was hearing but it sounded like a human voice. He backed the car out of the Builder Barn and turned off the engine to listen. He heard it again and drove in the direction the sound was coming from. He turned the corner by Wal-Mart and saw a someone standing on the roof of a brown delivery van in the middle of the empty parking lot. As he drove nearer he could see that it was a young girl and he also saw the reason she was screaming. There were eight dogs pacing around the base of the van looking for a way to get to her. He pulled up to the delivery truck and was not surprised when the dogs did not pay his car any attention. The most menacing dog in the pack was a bull terrier and while Jack was thinking about what to do the bull terrier jumped onto the hood of his car, he felt the full muscular weight of the animal in the depression of the car’s front suspension.
The dog jumped up to give it a better shot at leaping onto the roof of the Purolator van. Jack picked up the gun from the passenger seat and buzzed the window down just enough to allow him to stick his hand out. He saw the dog bunch its rear leg muscles preparing to jump and, using his left hand and without actually aiming, he flipped off the safety and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun was deafening as it bucked in his hand. The bullet slammed into the dog tearing a sizable chunk from the back of its skull. The animal flopped over onto its side with mouth agape and all four legs twitching. Jack and two of the smaller dogs watched the animal’s progress as it slid off the hood its blood providing lubrication. He heard it land with a meaty thud on the pavement. The other dogs watched their friend hit the ground but did not run away. They were all of differing breeds and had clearly been family pets and as a result did not fear humans.
He aimed a shot at the brown lab standing with its paws up on the hood of the truck barking at the girl. This shot clipped a hind leg knocking it down and that is when the other dogs got the message and ran off. He rolled the window all the way down and aimed carefully shooting the crying animal in the head silencing it. Looking around carefully in every direction he opened the door and put one foot on the pavement and stood up staying well inside its swing radius of the door ready to dive back inside. He watched the retreating dogs until he was satisfied they would not be coming back then turned his attention to the girl. She had stopped keening and except for the distant sound of the burning city the parking lot was quiet. The girl did not immediately climb down as he expected; she was staring at him blankly.
“Are you okay?” he said.
If she was infected like the others he did not want anything more to do with her. He watched as she slowly nodded her head up and down and he figured she must be in shock. He looked around again and got back in the car.
“Come on, are you coming?” he said.
He was not looking at her he was scanning the area for dogs. The girl did not move and he looked up at her through the windshield and wondered if she understood English. She was really beat-up looking and maybe only eleven or twelve-years-old; way too young to be on her own, he thought. He remembered a line from an old movie he liked and he stood up again and yelled at her to get her attention.
The sound startled her and she lost her balance and almost fell but it worked she made eye contact with him.
”Come wiss me if you vant to live.”
She made a weird throaty sound that could have been laughter but also sounded a little bit crazy. At least it worked to break her out of her daze, he thought. As he waited for her to climb down from the roof of the van he continued scanning the area.
She slipped and fell the last few feet landing on her butt and immediately sprang to her feet with a terrified shriek. After being chased by dogs her instincts told her if she is down she is dead. He studied her a moment before unlocking the door on her side. He hoped he was not making a mistake she looked like everyone else he’d seen in the last thirty days, disgusting.
She was covered from head to foot in filth. He could not even tell if she was wearing long pants or shorts, her legs were caked in so much muck. When she came closer he saw blood oozing from a gash on her forearm. A dog bite, he thought. Her face was covered in so much dirt he knew he would not recognize her if he saw her cleaned up. He could not tell what she looked like or even make a reasonable guess at the colour of her hair. He’d never seen a dirtier more pitiful looking kid in his life and, the truth was, he’d never been happier to see another human being. She got into the car and he began driving immediately it was beginning to get dark and he did not want any surprises. He glanced at her after he got them on the freeway headed back towards Eloy.
“What’s your name?”
It took her a long time to answer. It seemed like she was searching her mind for the answer.
“Sara” she whispered.
“I’m Jack. Are you alone?” he asked though the answer was obvious.
He glanced at her but not being a confident driver did not take his eyes off the road for long. He saw her eyes well with tears; the drops making muddy tracks down her cheeks. Her thin shoulders hunched together as she hugged her arms tight to her body and trembled.
“My dad,” she said, her voice a hollow whisper of disbelief,” left me.”
He saw by the look on her face that she couldn’t believe that her dad would do that to her.
“It wasn’t his fault Sara, something happened to people, something really bad,” he said trying to explain the unexplainable. She struggled to control her emotions and when she relaxed her shoulders clumps of dirt fell from her to the carpet.
“Your arm looks bad,” he said.
It took her a while to respond and look at her arm. At first she looked at the wrong one then at the injured arm and she moved her head a tiny bit nodding in agreement.
“Does it hurt?”
She stared at her injured arm but did not answer, they drove on in silence and when he thought of another question to ask he glanced over and she was slumped against the door asleep. He checked her every few minutes but she was completely out of it. He wondered how long it had been since she felt safe enough to sleep. After a few miles he had to put his window down to let air into the car because she smelled. It was dark when they got to Eloy and he parked the car up close to the door on the lawn. He looked around carefully before getting out and running to the front door. He unlocked it and went inside and found a candle to light. Exhausted from the trip he stood at the window looking out at the car.
He did not want to go outside in the dark but he was torn. He wondered if she would be okay in the car or if he should go out and bring her inside. His decision to go out and get her was ultimately a selfish one, he was worried she might die or runaway, and he would be alone again. He ran to the car and opening her door slowly so she would not fall out he shook her shoulder to wake her but she did not stir. He didn’t want to touch her, she was filthy, but he was worried about being outside, so he reached in and picked her up and ran with her in his arms back the house. He was breathing hard when he kicked the door closed behind them as he went through but it was not because she was heavy it was from fear and adrenaline in equal measure. She seemed to weigh too little for her size and he wondered how long it was since she’d eaten. He set her down on the sofa and when he let go she startled awake and let out a shriek.
“Hey it’s okay we’re home now.”
He watched the word ‘home’ work its magic as the terror leaked from her face. She peered around the semi-dark living room as if awaking from a long sleep trying to recall where she was. When her eyes came to rest on the television she turned to him with a look of hopefulness. He shrugged, smiled sadly, and shook his head,
“There is no electricity,” he said and she sagged a little lower on the couch at this news.
“My mom and my sister are gone too. I’ve been waiting for them to come back home,” he said.
He spoke the words though he no longer believed what he was saying; he knew his family would not be coming back. He saw hope leave her eyes and blank despair take its place as the meaning of his words sank in. They were alone.
“Are you hungry?”
He watched with amusement as she tore open a third bag of Doritos wolfing them down with both hands. She washed that down with a second can of warm Pepsi. While she was eating he got the first aid kit from the upstairs bathroom and by the time he returned she was asleep with an open bag on her lap. He knelt on the floor beside her and used wet wipes to clean dirt from the skin around the punctures on her arm. She did not stir when he touched her, she was completely out of it. There was one gash deeper than the others and he was concerned enough about it that he risked going outside again to get the new flashlight from the car. He wanted to look inside the wound because he saw lots of muck and crap. He figured it would become infected even if he did manage to clean it out. He used Q tips dipped in rubbing alcohol to dig out what he could; but it was hard to see inside the wounds so he dripped alcohol directly onto them, flushing them out as best he could.