“Excuse me. Are you guys getting a signal?”
“Internet still works. Look.”
The guy held out the phone and Twitter was up. If you’re reading this in a future where the Twitter fad has passed, Twitter was a Web site where people posted short little messages, usually from their phones, for the world to see. So, at any moment you could go on their site and see what the world at large was talking about, in real time. The main page of Twitter would always list what subjects were hot or “trending” at the moment. So when news broke, it broke on Twitter first—if a plane crashed near New York, people on the scene would start Tweeting about it within seconds, long before the first news camera showed up. Within minutes you’d see “#NYPlaneCrash” pop up on the trending topics.
The number one topic on Twitter at this moment was:
John’s old Caddie had a huge engine that would qualify as a human rights violation if built today. It roared down the road, chugging gas and farting a blue cloud of dinosaur souls.
“They’re sealing off the town!” John screamed over John Fogerty. “Munch told me! They’ve got the highway and Route 44 both blocked.”
We weren’t heading to the highway, however. We would never have made it even without the roadblock—John’s Caddie wasn’t exactly hard to spot and we were being pursued. Fortunately, we knew a shortcut.
John tossed his phone into my lap and said, “Call Shiva! Tell her to meet us at the water tower!”
“Shiva! My girlfriend!”
“That’s actually her name?”
“I think so!”
“There are absolutely no bars on this phone.” I pulled out mine and said, “Shit! Mine, too!”
“Goddamn we get shitty coverage here!”
Burrito stand. The tires screeched us to a stop. We spilled out and I yelled, “TRUNK! TRUNK!”
John stopped in his tracks and said, “Molly!”
I spun and there she was. She was by the trash can, her paws pinning down a scrap of aluminum foil while she hurriedly ate the remaining half of a chorizo burrito.
John fumbled with his keys and got the trunk open just as we heard in the distance, “DON’T FUCKING MOVE!”
Goddamned Lance Falconer, sprinting down the street, gun in hand. Holy shit that man could run.
I abandoned my stuff and sprinted to the back door of the burrito stand. The good news was it would get us out of there. The bad news was that the destination was a crapshoot and only one would work.
Come on water tower, water tower, water tower …
We opened the door and squeezed into the utility closet. A blink later the door changed in front of us and we stepped out to—
We were at the Walmart dressing room. No good. If the feds had blocked off the highway at city limits, we were still on the wrong side of it. John said, “Back in! Back in!”
Back into the dressing room. A blink. The smell of burritos hit us. We stepped out of the door at the exact moment Falconer skidded to a stop in front of us. He leveled his huge automatic at my face and said, “FREEZE!”
We ducked back inside. I heard Falconer yanking the door back open a split second before we emerged at a destination that stank of liquor and disinfectant.
“Shit!” hissed John, surveying a display of Jägermeister. “We’re at the liquor store.” Specifically, the restroom at the rear of the store. “What now?”
“Maybe if we wait here, he’ll wander away.”
“He’s not gonna do that, he’ll search the burrito stand for a hidden hatch or something. Then he’ll search our car and interrogate the burrito guy to see if he’s in on it.”
I glanced around. “What’s going on?”
The liquor store was packed. People were hauling armloads of bottles up to the counter and somebody was arguing with the cashier.
“People stocking up.”
“Screw it. He won’t be expecting us to pop back out. We’ll go out and right back in. Third time’s a charm.”
We shoved back into the liquor store restroom just as a guy nearby piled Jäger and half a dozen Red Bulls into a shopping basket.
A blink. Burrito smell.
I peeked out of the utility closet. A hand grabbed my collar and threw me to the ground, knocking the air from my lungs. A knee was on my back.
Falconer screamed, “HOW ARE YOU DOING THAT?”
“WE TOLD YOU! Just fucking let us go!”
“Shitbird,” Falconer growled, “you need to understand that it’s going to be martial law and rioting within the hour. That means if I put a bullet in both of your heads and leave you here, nobody will fucking care.”
I said, “Listen! Listen to me! Everything that has happened has happened because they wanted it to.”
“I DON’T KNOW! Find out! You’re goddamned Lance Falconer!”
John said, “Don’t you get it? You’re wasting your time, we’re just a couple of inconsequential dipshits in this whole thing. The people behind this will take out all three of us. We’re all pawns. Well, you’re a pawn, we’re a couple of Gummi bears your retarded little brother stuck on the chessboard.”
I felt the knee lift from my back. I looked up at Falconer towering over me, I met his eyes and found it easier to look into the barrel of his gun.
He said, “See, I would let you go so you can try to jump the quarantine, but I would like to not be responsible for destroying the world today. I’d sooner let everybody in this town past those barricades before you two fucks. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but disaster follows you everywhere you goddamn go. Now we’re going to—AAAHHH!”
An orange blur had attached itself to Falconer’s crotch. It was Molly, her teeth buried right in the detective’s junk.
John grabbed my jacket and we stumbled into the closet. I pulled the door shut—
“Yes!” screamed John.
We stepped out of a blue Porta-Potty, the middle one in a row of three at the edge of a construction site. To our right was the legs of a half-finished water tower.
In our various experiments with the doors over the months, we’d only found one—this one—that took you outside city limits. But not by much. No more than a quarter mile to the south of us we could see dots of military vehicles, parked along a road bisecting the field. A little bit of the cordon encircling the city. John pulled out his phone and said, “No reception. Man, you think they’re jamming the signal?”
“Dunno. If so we just gotta get far enough away, they’re not blocking it for all of America, right?”
“Well. Highway’s about a quarter mile that way.”
We went stomping across the expanse of broken cornstalks and mud of the harvested cornfield, tracing a similar path from that summer night when we saw the black convoy and found The Box. Fifteen minutes later, we got a good look at the traffic jam on the highway, a line of cars that extended across the horizon as far as we could see in both directions. In the distance to our left was the roadblock, a cluster of flashing police lights, Humvees and the muted echo of somebody shouting into a megaphone. They were trying to get cars to cross the median and go back the way they came, but due to people refusing to comply, or confusion, or just the general dipshit dysfunction of crowds, the whole process had resulted in gridlock. We both flinched as a helicopter swept overhead.
A day and a half ago I was at work playing browser games on the PC and trying to think of what to get Amy for her birthday. Suddenly it’s the freaking apocalypse.
John glanced at his phone, then stuffed it back in his pocket. Ten minutes later we made it out of the cornfield and onto the grass along the shoulder of the road. We took a right, putting Undisclosed to our backs. To our left was a wall of cars and semis forming an automotive Great Wall of China that snaked over the next hill.
When we crested that hill, we saw that the shopping center just outside of town—a U-shape strip of stores encircling three sides of a huge parking lot—had become a gathering place for refugees. The parking lot was packed with vehicles, and more were parked in the grass along the entrance leading in. As we got closer we saw people standing around, on their phones, trying to get in touch with loved ones behind the barricades.
That prompted John to pull out his phone.
“I’ve got bars! Well, a bar.”
He dialed and said, “Hey! Shiva. It’s me. Huh? No, no. Look, Sheila, Dave and I need a ride. We’re right outside that strip mall with the Best Buy. They got the roads all blocked—what? Yeah, I don’t know. Did you say zombies? No. Your friends are morons. What? No. Why would we have anything to do with it? Uh huh. That’s fine. Can you still pick us up? Hello? Shiva?”
He put the phone away and said, “Call got dropped. Also, I think she broke up with me.”
“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but, uh, did zombies come up in that conversation?”
“Yeah, apparently the Internet is full of zombie rumors. People are stupid.”
“I guess that’s not any stupider than the truth.”
We made it to the shopping center parking lot. On one end was the Best Buy, on the other was a now-closed movie theater. Between the two was a row of storefronts, half of them unoccupied.
John said, “I didn’t know they had a Cinnabon out here.”
“We got to get a ride, John. My feet are killing me.”
We walked past a parked Greyhound bus and John said, “You think they’d let us on there?”
The bus was empty. I said, “I don’t know. Where’s it going?”
“Good point. Find the driver and see if you can buy a ticket. Or bribe him. I have four dollars.”
“I have zero dollars. You might have to blow him.”
I peered through the smoked front windows of the Best Buy and saw the store was absolutely packed with people, staring up at a massive bank of televisions along the back wall.