He tried it ten more times.
Finally he gave up and stepped out of the booth, and noticed something for the first time.
Splattered on the inside of the door. Blood, and bits of pink something—
—that he couldn’t identify.
In that instant the whole sequence suddenly made sense. John sat down in the cornfield and tried to think of a dozen ways to talk himself out of it. The same rationalization—the exact same—that was running through the heads of dozens and dozens of people inside those army barriers up ahead. The families of those firemen, and the friends and coworkers of that reporter, and all of the other people who had died in an instant when everything went to shit: death was something that happened to other people. Strangers. Extras in the background. We don’t die. They die.
John lit a cigarette. He finished it. He climbed on board the dirt bike and said, out loud,
“All those fuckers are going to pay.”
30 MINUTES EARLIER …
A half hour earlier, while Dave and John were still trudging across a cornfield after having emerged from the water tower Porta-Potty …
Amy was finding it hard to breathe. Everybody on the bus was restless and nervous, bottled up in there with each other, cut off from the outside world. The phones were dead. Traffic had stopped—cars in front, cars behind. She was sick with worry and she had to pee so bad she didn’t know if she could actually make it through the process of standing, walking to the back and sitting down again on a toilet.
The bus driver got up and announced that he had gotten word over the radio that the highway had been shut down for the rest of the day and maybe the next, due to a chemical spill. The two guys in the seats across the aisle scoffed. They really wanted it to be zombies.
The driver said there was a shopping center ahead, that traffic was being diverted there and that once there the passengers would have the option of arranging for other transportation, or reboarding the bus and taking it back through the stops in reverse order. All Amy knew was that there were stores at the shopping center and that those stores had bathrooms.
After that, it would just be a matter of finding another route into town. If she had to walk, she’d walk. She hadn’t brought walking shoes but it wasn’t that far. She’d show up at David’s front door with cupcakes and show him the blisters on her feet and he’d give her a hug and try to peel clothes off of her. Then they’d sit on his porch in the autumn chill and eat cupcakes and drink some of that amazing coffee from that Cuban place and they’d talk about … whatever this situation was, and laugh about the Internet dorks giddily whispering about zombies.
The bus veered off onto the shoulder and rode it until the turn lane for the shopping center. As soon as it rolled to a stop, Amy shakily headed for the nearest doorway. She wasn’t even paying attention to what store she walked into, she just knew that on her dazed trip to the restroom, she passed a lot of televisions and cell phone kiosks and a gauntlet of muttering, worried people. She sat the cupcakes on a shelf outside the door because it seemed weird to take them in.
It’s amazing how your body affects your outlook on the world. Using the bathroom and walking around and splashing some water on her face, it made all the difference in the world. With that physical tension gone, the situation seemed so much less bleak. She probably wouldn’t have to even make the hike into town, surely there had to be another route—one of those gravel back roads that looped around the cornfields if nothing else—then find somebody in the parking lot going that way. She wasn’t sure why the bus didn’t just take one of them, but maybe they had some kind of policy against leaving the main roads.
Amy emerged from the bathroom, grabbed her cupcakes and caught a new, weird vibe in the store. Everybody was standing and gawking in the same direction. She followed their gaze and saw they were watching Best Buy’s rows of huge TVs, all of which were tuned to the local news. It cut to the anchor, who said a curse word she had never heard used on the news before, and his co-anchor leaned over and started gagging.
What in the world?
Amy almost asked the lady next to her what was going on, but then she noticed somebody talking on their phone and pulled out hers. Ah, service was back. She dialed and—
“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—”
The phone cut out.
“David? Can you hear me? What’s going on? The Internet thinks there are zomb—”
Nope, call got dropped. She redialed, and immediately got that stupid “all circuits are busy” message.
The scene on the TV changed, and suddenly she was looking at David’s house and …
Oh my God.
It was on fire.
Why would that happen? Did David even know? She held up the phone, zoomed in on the TV screen and snapped a shot of the burning house. Juggling the cupcake box so she could text with her one hand, she sent David a simple message:
WHAT IS HAPPENING
It said it was sent. Who knows if it actually got through. Meanwhile, the room around her was freaking out. People were murmuring and crying and arguing and cursing at their phones. Somebody rudely slammed into her from behind on their way to the door. She dropped the cupcake box but it landed right side up so she thought it was okay. She needed to find a chair. She needed to sit, and breathe, and wait to hear from David, and focus on not crying.
They sold office chairs over at the far side of the store and there were people sitting in them but something about the sight of the short redhead fighting back tears made three different guys give up their seats at the same time. She took the one in the middle.
She waited, and waited. She tried to call, circuits busy.
It wasn’t as bad as she was making it out to be. Didn’t David say they had made it out of town? And that they were fine? That’s what mattered. She suddenly realized how hungry she was. Was there anything to eat at this place other than those disgusting cinnamon rolls at Cinnabon?
There wasn’t. Ten minutes later she sat at a table by the window, picking tiny bits off of an enormous sticky cinnamon roll and stared at people freaking out in the parking lot. She needed to keep an eye on the bus, it still had her suitcase on board and she needed to make sure it didn’t leave with it.
The driver was back at the bus, opening up the luggage compartment to drag out bags for people who were bailing out on the trip. A tall guy with long hair and muddy pants was bothering the driver about something, and the driver was telling him no. The guy reminded her of—
Amy ran out the door and across the pavement as fast as her designed-purely-with-cuteness-in-mind shoes would let her. John was startled to see her. Before he could speak, she threw her arms around his torso.
“Oh, thank God. Oh my God, John. I can’t believe you’re here.”
John still looked baffled and said, “Yeah, I fell off but … I mean holy shit, Amy, I thought that … Anyway. It worked out so, great. Great. Oh my god.”
John said, “We should head north, get as far away as we can, and just kind of regroup. Need a ride though, I’m trying to get a spot on the bus but apparently that’s not allowed…”
John looked around. Amy looked around. At the exact same time both of them said, “Where’s David?”
Vultures. Big, noisy, circling, mechanical vultures. That’s what Amy thought of as she saw, for the first time in her life, half a dozen helicopters circling around in the same sky. A couple of them were news choppers, the rest looked like army. Buzzing, that soft thwupping fading in and out as their blades chopped up the air. If you ever see more than two helicopters over you, you can be sure that something terrible has happened.
Amy made John take her out to the water tower and the toilets. John went to the one on the far right and opened it, showing her that it was just a toilet, showed her that if he went and stood inside, nothing happened. She made him do this about twenty more times. She suggested he try the other two, he said that he had done that and that they, too, were just toilets.
Amy hated crying. She hated crying more than she hated puking. And she would rather puke on live television than cry in front of John right now. She wasn’t a large person under normal circumstances but when she cried she could feel herself shrink two feet. She instantly got demoted to child, everybody making soothing sounds and apologizing for things they didn’t even do. Strangers inviting themselves to put an arm around her shoulder like she was a five-year-old lost at the bus station.
And she was a crier. She cried when people yelled at her, she cried when she got frustrated, she cried during particularly sad commercials. But it was just crying. She didn’t get hysterical. She didn’t fall apart. But everybody treated her like she did, because her eyes were so quick to start leaking when things went wrong. And now, as John opened the toilet door and again she saw nothing but blue plastic walls and a whiff of poop chemicals, she felt that hot sting in her tear ducts and knew they were going to betray her for the ten thousandth time.
The thwupping got louder and one of the helicopters seemed to be swooping really low on its passes. It was a huge thing with two blades. She could feel their pulsing in her gut.
A black semi truck was turning down the lane, heading right toward them. Watching it warily, John said, “We have to get out of here. We’ll regroup and come up with a plan. But if they catch us then it’s over, we can’t help him.”
“One more time.”
John glanced back, toward the truck, and then toward the tiny army men in the distance and the bright orange fencing they were stretching across the field, sealing off the town behind them. Tiny shouts from a bullhorn were drifting through the air. Yells from angry and scared people. Honking horns. All of it playing under the terrible hollow drumming of the helicopters—the soundtrack of every worst-case scenario.