Finally, the vehicle banged to a stop.
Silence. Only a soft chittering over the desert breeze. And then came the voices.
Meet Dr. Marconi
THAT SUCKED. I pried my eyes open, feeling scratchy little bits in there that could either be sand or glass. I worked the lids open and found myself staring at dirt. Everything was upside-down; I was hanging by my seat belt. I felt like every single joint in my body had been wrenched painfully out of socket. It was agony from head to toe, so dark now that it took me a moment to realize that the massive, spreading pool down on the ceiling was not motor oil, but blood.
I craned my neck over and saw hunks of meat flying off what had been Officer Freeman/Appleton in juicy ragged pink-and-yellow layers, bone and ribs and a spongy mass that must have been lungs. Out from the meaty shreds came rushing masses of the tiny white demon-rod things, swirling around the interior of the truck like rice in a blender.
That’s not what caused me to panic, not that or the faint wet, ripping sounds next to me. No, what got me moving, what sent me clutching at the seat belt clasp, was the sound of the swarm.
Oh, that sound. Not something coming through my ears at all but a kind of shrill electricity in my brain, a million sharp, spiky, poison thoughts ricocheting around my head.
Imagine fifty thousand men trapped on a desert island, deprived of food and water and sex but somehow kept alive for fifty thousand years. Then, after they’ve been tormented a hundred steps beyond insanity, tortured past self-mutilation and cannibalism, somebody drops off a sculpture of a naked woman made from T-bone steaks. If you could then capture the sound of them simultaneously fucking and eating and tearing her to shreds and broadcast it into the center of your skull at ten thousand watts, it would still sound absolutely nothing like what I heard. It was madness and desperation and deprivation and torment gone supernova, screeches and howls and, sprinkled in here and there, my own name.
It blew every thought out of my head, tore my mind open. I was frantic, patting around for the clasp to the seat belt with hands shaking like a Parkinson’s patient. I could vaguely hear actual screams around me, right from the backseat, but they might as well have been a thousand miles away. These little white streaks were buzzing around my face now, past my ears, skipping over my skin.
I got my fingers around the little plastic box that held the seat belt but couldn’t find a button, couldn’t see it, pressed and pulled and finally just started clawing at the thing like a little kid in a tantrum. I felt this itching over my bare arms, and then little pricks like needles and I knew what it was, I fucking knew, and I started contorting my body to crawl free from the belt like an animal wrenching from a trap.
Movement, all around me in the darkness.
Glass shattering in the backseat.
Somebody getting dragged out.
I ran my hand over my forearm and a thousand of the rods scattered off into the air. I heard a resulting uproar in the voices, shrieks like teenage banshees at a boy band concert, except nothing like that at all. The sound—it was so massive and yet so compressed in my skull that it was a physical pressure against my temples. I thought I could feel wheezing, creaking fissures in the bone.
Then, hands were grabbing me, pulling at the seat belt. A hand came into view and with a flick there was suddenly a narrow blade there, a switchblade cutting at the strap. I fell free, crashed down. Four hands were dragging me out of the wreckage by the shirt and shoulders, my back scraping over a bed of glass bits.
It was Fred Chu and John, pulling me free. Everybody was yelling, freaking out. Molly was dancing around and barking—total panic at the sight of the little cloud of white insects blowing around me like pillow feathers.
The worms had settled on my arm again and were landing on my neck and face. I brushed them off, swatted at them in the air. John seized my arm by the wrist, dug out the brown bottle of alcohol from his pants and doused the arm with it.
This seemed to annoy the flying worm things more than anything, and my skin was on fire with their attempts to dig their way in. I sputtered, “That ain’t helping! The alcohol isn’t hurting th—”
John flicked his lighter and set my arm on fire.
I said before that my skin was “on fire” with the pain but being confronted so soon after that sentiment with the actual experience, I admit that other thing was nothing like my skin actually being on fire.
But even the white heat on my arm was nothing next to the pain that suddenly erupted inside my skull. Hundreds of the worms were burned alive and the psychic outcry was like shoving my head inside a 747 engine. It was a nuclear bomb of sound, earth-shattering, feeling like an explosion of razor blades in my cranium.
And then, silence. John was rolling my arm in the dust, patting out the flames. The skin was beet red and peeling in places.
I sat up, tried to focus my eyes, tried to get to my feet, fell back down on my ass. I saw John had blood running down his forehead and he was trying to wipe it from his eyes, the empty liquor bottle at his feet. He leaned over and puked. Jennifer was on her knees in the dirt, had a chunk missing from her upper thigh and her hair was matted to the side of her head with blood.
Big Jim was pointing and screaming. Molly was barking.
Thrashing around as if on fire.
The swarm had found him.
The flying worms poured out of the wrecked SUV like a kicked hornet’s nest. All landed on Fred.
He was coughing, choking, the rods gushing into his wide-open mouth. In five seconds it was over.
We all knew he wasn’t dead. Jim and John and Molly stared toward Fred in dull shock, a silence settling over the scene so heavy it was almost a solid thing.
Only Jennifer moved. She sprinted toward the dead SUV, a little squirt of blood jumping from her leg wound with each step. She crawled in, grabbed something, then backed out quickly.
Fred moved. He twitched, flopped onto his back, then clumsily got to his feet. Everybody flinched and took steps backward. I forced myself to my feet over the protest of my leg muscles. Fred—if it was still Fred—looked confused for a moment, then brushed himself off and said, “It’s okay, guys. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Jennifer ran up, and I saw what she had retrieved from the SUV. It was Morgan’s shotgun. The thing was gleaming in the moonlight with a layer of tacky blood. Without asking, Jim took it from her and checked the chamber to see if a shell was loaded. He laid it over his shoulder like he was suddenly the captain of this crew. He said, “We gotta get a car, guys. Somehow.”
Nobody moved. Jennifer looked at me expectantly. What was I supposed to do? I could barely keep my feet. I looked Fred dead in the eyes, searching them.
I said to Fred, “Go flag down a car.”
Jim nodded like this was a perfectly good plan and followed Fred as he walked toward the highway. Jennifer gave me an exasperated look, went up to Jim and tore the gun from his hands. He spun, asked her what the heck she was doing. She backed away from him and I half expected her to blow a hole through the infested Fred with the shotgun.
Instead she went right to me and pushed the gun into my hands.
Very slowly and carefully Big Jim said to me, “What are you going to do with that, David?”
John, Jen and I stood side by side, facing Fred and Jim from about ten feet away.
Fred said, “Whoa, guys. Guys, we’re all shook up here. Okay?”
Jennifer said, “Jim, were you not paying attention to what just happened? That’s not Fred. Not anymore.”
“We don’t know what happened,” snapped Jim, glancing over at Fred. “Does anybody here understand this? Really? Screw you if you think you do.”
Fred said, “Guys, look, I don’t know what you think you saw but I’m still Fred in here. Ask me anything, I’m me. I mean, we were all in that car when the cop exploded. Any of us could be . . . infected or whatever, but we gotta hang together. We’re like, the fuckin’ good guys here. Right?”
Everyone looked at me. I was the armed one. I looked down, as if deferring to the shotgun. It was cold, heavy and sticky with Morgan’s blood.
A breeze blew past us. From my right, Molly let out a low growl.
I closed my eyes, let out a long breath and said, “Go flag down a car.” Big Jim and Fred turned once more and took a step toward the highway. I let out a breath, took two steps forward.
I raised the shotgun and blew Fred’s head off his shoulders.
Blood flew. I saw it mist in the moonlight, for a split second frozen in the air like a snapshot. There was that feeling again, the sparks in my head, the old violence high, the electricity of it shivering through me.
Fred’s body slumped to its knees, then fell flat on its chest.
The old familiar sights and sounds.
I had been here before.
Big Jim recoiled, splattered with Fred’s blood, yelling something I couldn’t hear. Everything was dull, slow. I craned my head to see John and he had an expression I had seen there a few times before, something like fear, and pity. I wanted to put the butt of the shotgun through his face. I loathed that look. It said, “You are what you are, Dave, and that’s that.”
I caught a glimpse of Jen, her hands clasped over her mouth. This seemed like such a fucking good idea ten seconds ago, didn’t it?
There was movement out the corner of my eye and it was Big Jim, stomping toward me, rage lighting up his face. That was a familiar look for him, too, seen in a dozen high school fights, his fists about to come loose like fighting dogs tearing out of their cages.
Yeah, Jim, you can quote the Bible to me but you and I got the same sickness.
I aimed the shotgun right at his face.
Jim looked into the barrel, took two more steps, then raised his eyes to meet mine.
His eyes never moving from mine. He said, “The day after the Hitchcock thing, back in school. I saw you, you and your buddies, laughing. Laughing in the hallway. Not twelve hours after Billy died. I know all about you, Dave. You got the Devil in—”