I stared at him.
“Why did you tell me that?”
He shrugged. “You asked.”
His face showed nothing. I thought of the Asian guy, casually disappearing into the magic burrito door, walking out somewhere else. And in that moment I almost asked Tennet what he knew, and who he was.
I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything.
18 Hours Prior to Outbreak
Hours went by, and the cops continued to not show up at either my house or John’s apartment. All morning I was worried sick about what I would say when they brought me in, but then afternoon came and I was even more worried about the fact that they weren’t coming after us. That meant things had gotten so out of control that we were no longer on their list of priorities.
Come midafternoon, I found myself at work, standing behind a counter, trying to peel the magnetic antitheft tag off a DVD with my fingernail (a DVD is a disc that plays movies, if they don’t have those by the time you read this). I know I’ve complained about the pain in my eye and shoulder more than once but I want to point out that the bite on my leg was also starting to hurt like a son of a bitch.
I would have called in sick, but I had used up all of my sick days for the year and couldn’t take off again until January. I take a lot of sick days, most of them self-declared Mental Health days, meaning I wake up in a mood that I know will lead me to assault the very first person who asks me if the two-day rentals have to be back on Wednesday or Thursday.
I had worked at Wally’s Videe-Oh! for five years, been a manager for two. I started right after I dropped out of college. At the time I had heard that Quentin Tarantino got discovered while working at a video store, and I think I had it in my head to try to work there and write a screenplay. It was going to be about a cop in the future with a sentient flamethrower for an arm. At age nineteen, that seemed like a pretty sound plan. The thing about not having parents is you don’t have anyone to tell you you’re heading down a path paved with grossly inaccurate expectations of what the world owes you.
The people who raised me—and I’ll leave their names out of this—they did what they could. Nice people, real religious. Kind of treated me like I was a little African refugee kid they had rescued. They knew my story, knew that I had never known my dad. Years later when I got in trouble at school and got kicked out because of that kid that died, they were real supportive. Took my side all the way through, then shortly after they moved to Florida and hinted that maybe things would be better if I stayed behind.
My birth mom is living in Arizona, I think, staying with a dozen other people in an arrangement that could be called a “compound.” She sent me a letter two years ago, thirty pages scribbled on lined notebook paper. I couldn’t make it past the first paragraph. I skipped down to the last sentence, which was, “I hope you are stockpiling ammunition like I told you, the forces of the Antichrist will first seek to disarm us.”
I scraped the plastic theft sticker off the DVD, put it back in its case, then picked another case off the stack. Pulled out the disc, started scraping off the tag. I looked around, saw there was only one customer in the store. A guy wearing a cowboy hat. His jeans looked like they were painted on.
The TV we had mounted in the far corner of the store was supposed to be playing a promotional DVD but I had switched it over to Headline News, with the sound down and the closed-captioning turned on. They had been going back to the “hospital shooting” every twenty minutes or so. The cowboy with the tight pants came up to the counter with a copy of Basic Instinct 2 and 2001: A Space Odyssey. How could he walk in those jeans? Did they inflate when he farted?
I glanced up at the TV and saw a reporter standing in front of a street barricade. Closed-captioning mentioned something about cops having to break up an angry crowd trying to get in to see loved ones at the hospital. The cowboy gave me his membership card and I punched in the number. His account came up as:
NAME: James DuPree
ACCT STATUS: A
COMMENTS: THIS MAN HAS WORN THE SAME TROUSERS SINCE HE WAS A TODDLER.
Many memos had circulated at Wally’s about abusing the customer comment box on the computer. We have John to thank for that. He worked here a few years ago, after I begged the manager to let him on. John was fired a few months later, but not before he managed to add something to the “Comment” field for pretty much every single customer he served:
NAME: Carl Gass
COMMENTS: If he doesn’t have late charges, and you tell him that he does, he LOSES HIS FUCKING MIND.
NAME: Lisa Franks
COMMENTS: Had sex with her on 11/15.
NAME: Kara Bullock
COMMENTS: Thinks I have an English accent. Don’t forget.
NAME: Chet Beirach
COMMENTS: Always smells like fish. I think he fishes for a living. He’s sensitive about it so don’t bring it up.
NAME: Rob Arnold
COMMENTS: It’s the white Patrick Ewing!
NAME: Cheryl Mackey
COMMENTS: Had sex with her on 7/16.
I gave the cowboy his change, glancing over his shoulder at the TV every chance I could get. They were back to old footage from the hospital, the camera showing close-ups of bullet holes in walls and shell casings on the floor. The cowboy turned to follow my gaze, saw the TV. “That’s some scary shit, ain’t it?”
I said, “Yeah.”
“Whole world’s comin’ to an end, that’s what I think.”
“Nigger in the White House.”
The cowboy left. He stuffed his wallet into his back pocket and I imagined it shooting back out again, squeezed by the sheer pressure of the fabric. I grabbed a DVD and went back to peeling off stickers.
I had gotten written up six weeks ago because more DVDs were stolen on my watch than either of the other two managers. Not sure what I was supposed to be doing to stop it, other than running out and tackling the kids who tried to walk out with the goods. The problem, I decided, was the magnetic antitheft tags that would activate the door alarm were in the DVD cases, not on the discs, so it only took the thieves minutes to figure out they just had to pop the disc out of the case and stuff it in their pocket, leaving the case and the theft tag behind. Yes, this town has people who are actually too poor to afford a computer and Internet connection to just pirate the movies that way.
So I wrote up this angry e-mail to the head office, saying the antitheft system was idiotic and that if they were serious about people not stealing discs, then they should put the antitheft tags on the discs themselves. They agreed, and I and two other employees spent about twelve hours sticking these stiff little stickers to all of the new releases in the store. The plan worked beautifully. That is, until last Thursday, when a customer brought in a disc that had been scratched to hell because the theft sticker came unstuck inside his DVD player. It jammed the little tray when it tried to eject the disc and he had to pry it out. Two days later, a customer brought in a broken DVD player. When his disc got stuck thanks to the sticker, he wound up breaking the disc tray on the machine trying to free it.
I wasn’t at the store that day, I was on one of my many “sick” days. But when I came back I was greeted by twenty-seven e-mails from managers and regional managers and other people I had never heard from before, telling me that every antitheft sticker had to be removed from every DVD by November 5th.
I bring this up in case you were wondering why in the holy hell I felt the need to come in to work in the middle of what appeared to be some kind of monster infestation. The answer is that if I took one more sick day I would be fired, and if I didn’t get these stickers off by the deadline I would be fired, and even if I could talk my way out of one firing I sure as hell couldn’t talk my way out of both. And if I was fired, soon after society would decide I wasn’t earning my electricity and water and my house and my food. And they’d be right. If you think that’s a bad reason to come to work in the middle of all this, then I’m guessing you’re still living with Mom and Dad.
I glanced up at the TV and saw something new. Security camera footage, from inside the hospital. In color, but in a frame rate that made the people appear to blink down the hallway, teleporting five feet at a time. There was a shot of a woman running in terror. They cut back to the studio and some older guy in a suit, an expert of some kind they had brought in. Then they cut back to the security video and I froze.
I heard the DVD I was holding fall to the counter.
Did I just see that?
They played it again. The first frame was Franky, in the hall of the hospital, holding a nurse around the throat. The frames rolled forward. A security guard came into frame, hand out, trying to talk Franky down. Next frame, same players, limbs in different positions. Looked to be about one frame per second. The next frame was what got me.
At the top of the screen appeared a man in black. And I mean all black, head to toe. A solid black shape. Next frame—one second later—he was gone.
I stared. They cut back to the anchor. The closed-captioning lagged behind but I didn’t think I saw any mention of the mysterious figure in the hall.
My cell phone screamed. I picked up.
John said, “Dave? Can you get to a television?”
“We got one on here. I saw it.”
“The thing in the hall?”
“Yeah. Man in black.”
“Man, this isn’t a joke anymore.”
“It wasn’t a joke before, John. A bunch of people died.”
“You know what I mean. You better sleep with your crossbow tonight.”
“I don’t have the crossbow. The cops confiscated it, remember?”
“Okay, then I should come over. I’ll bring my lighter. We’ll sleep in shifts.”
“No. Wait, bring your what?”
“Come on man, how do you know Franky won’t show up there?”
“He’s surely dead by now.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t.”