“I’m busy, John.”
“Sure. I’ll try to come up with a plan.”
“Watch the shadows.”
“Hey, John, don’t do anything stupid—”
I was talking to a dead phone.
17 Hours Prior to the Outbreak
DISCLAIMER: The following sequence of events was relayed by John to the author after the fact, and no attempt was made to corroborate this version of events through witness interviews. While there is no evidence directly contradicting any of this account, much of it seems highly unlikely.
John wound up needing five hours to find Franky Burgess.
That may sound impressive to you, considering there were rows of trained, uniformed men fanning out across several square miles around the hospital all day Friday without success, but it actually took longer than John was hoping. It wasn’t until 8 P.M. that he found himself face-to-face with Franky across a pane of dirty glass, and he had been hoping to have the whole situation wrapped up while it was still daylight. Night is when bad things happen in Undisclosed. Well, bad things also happen in the daytime but at least you can see where you’re going when you’re running away.
Anyway, in early November, night falls at around six. So after getting off the phone with Dave at the video store at three, John had spent an hour driving around in his Caddie and getting a sense of the situation around town. The manhunt, which seemed to involve several hundred police, volunteers and National Guardsmen, appeared to be focused on the wooded area east of the hospital, and the empty houses and trailers around it. It made sense from their point of view, he supposed. They were looking for a spot where a deranged and wounded man would crawl off to die. But they weren’t going to find Franky. It wasn’t going to be that easy.
There were local cops who had to know better, who had to know that the situation at the hospital had been that other thing, the kind of business that pops up in Undisclosed every few years when the town decides to start coloring outside the lines. John was picturing the chief trying to nudge the National Guard in that direction, maybe suggesting that they expand the search, and that maybe additional precautions should be taken with the quarantine. Special hearing protection, perhaps. Or hazmat suits. And instead of just the hospital, maybe rope off the whole town. Or state. But then that would lead to a lot of awkward questions and the chief would quickly back down and just pray that the whole thing would come to nothing. If only it ever worked out that way.
John, on the other hand, was thinking “monster” from the start since, you know, the situation was caused by a monster. It was just a matter of figuring out what kind of monster it was. There are really only two kinds of monsters in the world, which you already know if you’ve been watching horror movies: Breeders and Non-breeders. So for instance, Frankenstein’s monster would fall into the second category if he was real. He’s a freak, a singular being and once you kill him, he’s gone. Problem solved.
The Breeders are an exponentially bigger problem. Within that group you’ve got slow breeders like vampires (if they were real, which they’re not) which breed in a small-scale controlled way, but mainly to avoid extinction rather than spread. But then you’ve got the fast breeders, like zombies (if they existed, which they don’t) where breeding is all they do. They are basically walking epidemics, and are the worst of the worst-case scenarios, because such a creature could, hypothetically, wipe out civilization. This is humanity’s greatest fear, which is why at the moment half of the world’s horror novels, movie posters and video games have zombies on the cover. So in any situation like this, step one is to find out what category of creature you’re dealing with. Step two is to anticipate what the creature is going to do next, based on what you determined in step one. Then step three is you find out if the thing can be killed with a chainsaw.
This particular case was a fairly straightforward situation of a small creature taking over a man’s head and controlling his body. That is a really specific thing for a creature to do, John thought, requiring countless specialized biological adaptations. So it was unlikely that it was just some kind of Frankenstein-style genetic mistake with no goal beyond stumbling around biting people until somebody shot it enough times. So, logically that would mean it was a Breeder, and that the taking over of a human body was done to facilitate breeding. What had John worried was that the little shit looked like an insect, and in the normal course of things, insects are notoriously fast breeders. So it could be a worst-case scenario. John suspected that somebody up the ladder had already arrived at that conclusion, which is why on this fine autumn afternoon you couldn’t pull up to a stoplight in Undisclosed without finding yourself in a Humvee sandwich. It’s also presumably why the hospital had been roped off.
So, how do we find Franky?
In John’s estimation, that would come down to how much of Franky’s brain was still intact. His body still functioned despite the damage it had taken, so the basic nervous and muscular systems must still have been operated by his own human brain. So there surely had to be some remnant of Franky’s instincts and impulses in there. And Franky was a cop.
John could think of five shops in town that sold donuts, none of which said they had seen Franky when John called. Where else did cops eat? John drove past a half dozen fast-food franchises, and didn’t see Franky inside when he passed. It was getting frustrating. Only two hours of light left now. Then, John swung by a Waffle House and found what he was looking for:
He was good and hungry by that point and let’s face it, it had been a “eat breakfast for dinner” kind of day. Blueberry waffles, hash browns, washed down with a beer he found in his jacket.
Around five, John dropped by Munch’s trailer. Mitch “Munch” Lombard was one of the three bass players in John’s band Three Arm Sally, and had been since high school. He was also a volunteer firefighter which meant he had a police band scanner at his place. John figured he could stay on top of the manhunt and come up with a new plan.
There were a bunch of dudes there already and everybody was playing Guitar Hero and drinking that purple mix of 7Up and cough syrup that sent John to the hospital last year. Steve Gamin came by with a huge bag of frozen McNuggets he had stolen from the McDonald’s where he worked. They fired up the Fry Daddy and ate McNuggets for an hour. There was a Japanese chick there who was either drunk or just really goofy. Either way she could barely stand up and laughed at everything that happened. John took a hit of something that he realized gave him the ability to speak Japanese. Or at least he thought it did. He made words that sounded like Japanese to the girl and every time he did, she laughed so hard she almost pissed herself.
He hadn’t forgotten his mission. Occasionally John would hear excited voices over the police scanner and would make everybody be quiet. But eventually everybody got so fucked up they wouldn’t do it. Head Feingold and his girlfriend Jenny McCormick stopped by with a case of wine she won in a contest and it was a party all of a sudden. A while later, Head went outside to puke and fell asleep on the deck. John found himself making out with the Japanese girl but she started calling him by a different name and he suddenly realized she had been confusing him with another guy all night. Do all white people look the same to the Japanese? John got off the sofa and told her he had to use the bathroom, then quietly threw on his jacket and headed for the door.
Dark outside. Damn it.
John saw Head passed out on the deck, under the grill. He turned around, went back into the trailer, grabbed a comforter and a pillow. He went back out to the deck where Head lay and put the blanket over him and wedged the pillow under his head. Just as he was about to leave again, John heard the scanner crackle to life behind him. The dispatcher was reporting that staff out at the turkey farm west of town were complaining that some vagrant was stealing turkeys. The responding cop said in that coded way cops do, that they had bigger fish to fry.
John, on the other hand, jumped off the deck and threw himself into his old Cadillac. He buckled his seat belt, which he always did because he never knew when he would need to ramp something. He made the engine growl and told the headlights to fuck the night.
John had inherited the old Cadillac from a great-uncle who passed away the previous summer. There had been quite a heated debate among the family about who would get stuck with the terrible car, as no one wanted to have to deal with the process of scrapping it. John volunteered and had been driving it ever since.
Creedence Clearwater Revival blasted from an old cassette as John bumped down the highway. He hated Creedence, but Uncle Pat loved them, apparently. Or maybe that was just the last tape he had been listening to when all of the buttons on the ancient sound system stopped working. Either way, the tape was now in permanent play mode, playing through side A, reaching the end, automatically reversing and playing side B. Forever. As loud as it would go. You couldn’t stop it, you couldn’t eject it. Where there should have been a volume knob, there was only an empty hole, not even a little shaft that you could maybe grab with a pair of needle-nose pliers. On each end of the Caddie’s dash were large lumps where John had wadded up towels and held them over the speakers with electrician’s tape, hoping to muffle the sound. It did not. Creedence was determined to be heard.
John headed south down the highway, left onto a curve that transitioned to a rural paved road with no painted lines, and across the overpass. Then around the lake, heading toward a row of enormous, low, blue buildings. Turkey factory. There was a gravel lane to the right, and John took it so hard he thought he was going up on two wheels. The Caddie bumped and growled on the dirt road, rear end fishtailing like it was on ice, bits of gravel smacking the floorboards with a sound like popcorn.
John scanned the grounds for any sign of Franky. He wasn’t feeling so good, the waffles and hash browns and beer and McNuggets and wine and the Japanese girl’s ChapStick sitting hard in his gut—
“OH, SHIT! SHIT!”