We went in and shouldered our way through the crowd. They were watching live news coverage of the chaos in Undisclosed on three dozen flat-screen TVs of various sizes. The Action 5 News Team was finding as many ways as they could to say the same thing over and over—that there was some kind of unspecified crisis in the town, that they didn’t know the nature of it but that it was huge and terrible and that we should all remain calm but glued to our televisions. Then they threw it out to star reporter Kathy Bortz, who was standing about one block from my house:
“Thank you, Michael. Look behind me. Fire trucks. Police cars. Military Humvees. A large RV that appears to be a mobile command center from the Centers for Disease Control. Numerous civilian vehicles. Behind them, a raging house fire. There is mass confusion here, folks. We heard gunshots when we first arrived, we have been told there are at least three bodies but that’s all we know. Personnel are—what was that? Did you catch that, Steve? Back on me. Ready? Personnel are swarming the scene. They’re trying to push back onlookers, as you can see quite a crowd has gathered around. Information has been hard to come by but what we know is that this is the same address where less than an hour ago neighbors called in reports of a shouting, bloody, naked man carrying what appeared to be—what’s that? Steve? No, there’s something on my—AH!”
Kathy swatted at her hair, like a woman who has realized a bee has nested there. Only two people in the Best Buy saw that it was not a bee.
She screamed. There was another scream, a man this time. Her camera guy, apparently, because the screen jerked and suddenly we were looking at the reporter’s feet. She wore tennis shoes. I always remember that part.
The knees of her pantsuit came into frame next. She was shrieking, convulsing. She fell flat into the grass. While the Action 5 News audience watched, the face of Kathy Bortz fell into frame. A three-inch-long strip of flesh was missing from her forehead, pink skull showing in the gash.
Gasps from the crowd around us. On the screen, Bortz shrieked, and shrieked. The strip of eaten flesh on her face grew, edging down, across her eyebrow. The invisible-to-everyone-else carnivore quickly chewed across her eyelid, then dug into her eyeball, spilling pale fluid down across the bridge of her nose.
The shot cut back to the male and female anchors. Perfect-haired anchor Michael McCreary blinked, looked off camera and said, “What the FUCK?” His female coanchor turned to lean behind the desk, and vomited.
The air in the store was charged with panic—that bottled-up, impotent panic of a crowd that doesn’t know how to act on it. Should they riot? Loot the place? Burn it down? Should they stampede out of there? To where? Cinnabon?
Instead, everybody just kind of stood shoulder to shoulder, mumbling to each other. A black woman next to me was crying, covering her mouth with one hand.
My cell phone screamed and half a dozen people around me almost shit their pants. On the screen it said:
“Amy! Can you hear me?”
“Did you hear the news?”
“Listen to me! We’re okay. John and I both, we got out of town. Now, we may have to come up there and stay with you for a bit, we can’t go back to town because—”
“David. Stop talking. Did you not get any of my voice mails? I got on a bus to [Undisclosed] this morning—”
“Shit! Turn around! Amy, it’s chaos in there. Get off at the next stop and—”
The background noise had cut off from her end and I knew the call had gotten dropped. No bars on the phone.
“Shit! John, she’s on her way down here!”
“No, that’s good news, man. She’ll be coming in on the highway, right? We figure out how far the bus got and we’ll meet her there. Hell, if we head north we’ll run into her at some point.”
My phone screamed again. Text message this time, from Amy.
The message said simply, WHAT IS HAPPENING.
There was a photo attached. I opened it.
All of the warmth in my body drained out through my feet, all my life and strength forming a puddle on the tile floor.
The photo was of my burning house. Taken from not twenty feet away.
I sat down, an act that was not entirely voluntary. I was in a forest of legs. My head was swimming.
John was talking to me. “Dave? Dave. What’s happening?”
“She’s at my…”
“She’s at my fucking house, John. Amy. She took the bus this morning and she went to my house. To find me.”
“She’s … I’m sure she’s fine. She’s smarter than both of us put together, she’ll—”
“I have to go back for her.”
“You’re damned right.”
He pulled me to my feet. I shoved my way through the crowd, knocking rudely through shoulders and elbows.
In the parking lot John said, “All we got to do is get back to the water tower, take the door, get back to the burrito stand. With any luck the Caddie will still be there—”
“We can’t walk. We have to, uh, borrow a vehicle. Something that can drive right the hell across that cornfield.”
“Look.” He pointed. “Left of the Greyhound.”
There was a very muddy pickup, on jacked-up suspension. In the bed was an equally muddy dirt bike.
I was praying that the keys were in the truck. They weren’t, and the truck was locked.
Looking around nervously, we rolled the bike out of the truck bed. I had only driven a motorcycle twice in my life, and hadn’t crashed either time. John had actually owned one a few years ago, but had crashed it twice. We didn’t discuss it, I jumped on and John climbed on behind me. I kicked it to life, and we were off. Across the parking lot, onto the grass, into the stubble and mud of the cornfield.
We bounced along the ruts and John had his arms around my rib cage so tight I thought he was breaking bones. I told him to loosen up because I couldn’t breathe. I aimed the bike right at the vertical columns of the tower, brown at the seams where they had been welding the plates together. I saw the blue Porta-Potty at the base, as it grew out of a speck in the distance. November wind froze my ears and cheeks. I felt like I was watching myself do all of it from afar.
They couldn’t have Amy. They could have me, they could have John, they could have Undisclosed and the Midwest and America. I’ll cede all of that to them, whoever they are. But they don’t get Amy. She’s off the table.
Amy had already lost her family, in that car accident years ago, the same one that took her hand and left her tethered to a bottle of pain pills she could never allow out of her sight. She lost her brother, she lost her home. The world owed her more than it would ever be able to repay but by God, it was going to have to try.
The reporter’s face kept flashing through my mind. A flesh-eating spider, chewing through her eye—
—and Amy was closer than that. Closer to the infested house than the reporter. How in the hell had she gotten so close? Why didn’t they stop her? Maybe the National Guard had gotten her by now, or the CDC. Maybe they’d just hold onto her until they got all of this under control.
They will never get this under control.
I was numb all over, a combination of the cold and the vibration and the panic and exhaustion. I couldn’t feel the bike jolting over the ruts in the field, I couldn’t feel John’s arms around me, I couldn’t feel the half-dozen wounds that had been complaining all over my body.
I pulled up to the Porta-Potty, found the kickstand and said, “If it looks like the feds have it under control, we find somebody in charge and—”
John was not there.
I jumped off the bike and looked back. There was a tiny figure way off in the distance, frantically waving his arms and running. He had fallen off somewhere around the first third of the trip.
No time to wait for him. I pulled out my phone and wrote out a message to him in an unsent text, telling him to give us thirty minutes to get back before getting as far away as he could. Somebody had to stay on the other side of those barricades. I left the message on the screen and laid the phone on the seat of the dirt bike. Couldn’t use it in town anyway.
I went to the door of the middle Porta-Potty and whispered, “Burrito stand.”
To be clear, the doors absolutely did not work that way. It was just wishful thinking, or a prayer.
I opened it, stepped inside.
The plastic Porta-Potty door clapped shut behind me. I knew I wasn’t at the burrito stand. There were no burrito smells. There was noise. Panic, from outside. I opened the door and had a split second to register that I was in the restroom at BB’s.
Shouted commands, panicked screams. Gunshots.
I wanted to turn back to the door, to retreat to the field. Instead I found a gun barrel pointed in my face. I threw up my hands.
John heard muffled gunshots as he approached the toilet, and they sounded close. Sound waves are a funny thing but he swore the noise was coming from inside the blue plastic shitter.
He reached the door and was about to yank it open when he had second thoughts. Wait, if there were dudes with guns at the other end of the “door” or portal or wormhole, could they shoot through it? Was that what he heard? If he opened it, would a hail of bullets fly out? Would a dude with a machine gun spring out at him? Or had some soldier or cop been taking a shit when Dave burst in, so now the two of them were having a gunfight, pressed chest-to-chest in the tiny booth?
Unarmed and with no other plans for the day, John took a deep breath and pulled open the door.
Filthy, chemical toilet. A crumpled bag of Doritos on the plastic floor. Empty toilet paper roll.
John climbed inside. Closed the door.
You could feel when the doors worked, there was a change in the air, and a slight smell like the gas that comes out of aerosol cans of whipped cream before the cream comes out. When he opened the door, he was unsurprised to find it was just the field again.