“Not that I know of. Can somebody point me toward the food?”
Nervous glances. Was the food a sensitive subject around here? Nobody seemed to have barbecue ribs.
Four-balls said, “You playin’ a fuckin’ game here, bro?”
“Have we met?”
“Man, just fuck off.”
“If I agree to fuck off will you tell me where the food is?”
The man scowled and said, “Ask Sal where the food is. Go ahead. He’s right there.”
He nodded toward the bonfire. A skinny guy with a bandage covering one eye said, “Let it go, man. Walk away.” He said it to me.
“Why am I the one who has to walk away? Maybe I wanna enjoy the fire?”
Four-balls stepped toward me and said, “Dude, you got five seconds to walk away or else you’re goin’ in there with Sal. I don’t give a shit what anybody says.”
“Wait, do you have me confused with someone else?”
“Whoa, whoa!” from behind me. It was the black guy from the window. Green suit. “Easy, man. Easy. Dude just got outta the hole.”
Four-balls said, “I don’t give a shit.”
Black guy grabbed my sleeve and pulled me away, saying, “Let’s go inside, it’s cold out here.”
I went with him, and realized he hadn’t come alone. Four more green suits were with him. What, were we on teams? What the hell was this? Had I stepped into some weird alternate dimension? Again?
“Man, we didn’t think you were comin’ back,” he said. “This is just in time, too. We got the warning buzz about forty-five minutes ago so truck gonna be here any time.”
I said, “I didn’t understand one word of that.”
Just short of the front door he stopped, leaned into my ear and screamed, “WE GOT THE WARNING BUZZ FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO SO THE—”
“My hearing is fine. I don’t know who you are. I’ve lost time, I have no memory of all this. Last thing I remember everything was going to shit out there, out in the town. Then I woke up in the basement of the old creepy-ass TB asylum down the street. In the ‘hole,’ is that what you called it?”
The black guy rubbed his head and said, “Shit. You get knocked over the head or somethin’?”
“No, they said it was a side effect of whatever they did to me over there.”
He let out a breath, glanced around nervously and pulled me inside the hospital. The place was absolutely trashed. Once upon a time, there had been a huge oval-shaped desk right inside the doors where you could check in with a row of secretaries who’d log you into their computers and put a band on your wrist, filtering out the people who didn’t have insurance. Now there were just ragged splinters and deep gouges in the tile where the desk had been roughly ripped from the floor.
The black guy said, “Firewood. See, their plan is to take the easy stuff first—stuff close to the door—and burn it. That way, when we’re all more tired and sick a month from now, the only wood left will be the shit that’s hard to get to on the tenth floor. Makes good sense if you’re a fuckin’ idiot.”
“How long? Tell me. How long since the outbreak happened?”
“’Bout nine days. You don’t remember nothin’?”
“Holy shit, we trashed the hospital this bad in nine days?”
“Oh, no, man, the CDC had staff here keepin’ things in order for the first few. Then they bailed out. We done all this since Wednesday. This is Sunday.”
“And no, to answer your question, I don’t remember anything after showing up here. I don’t even know your name.”
“Name’s TJ. I knew John before all this. You and I met once at a party but you probably don’t remember that for a different reason.”
“Wait, is John here? The guy said—”
“No, man. We got a lot to talk about. Let’s get up to my room, come on.”
He led me to a stairwell that was pitch dark and, despite everything that had transpired, still smelled like hospital—old food, chemicals, death. I’m going to get rich one of these days selling a hospital disinfectant that doesn’t stink of despair.
We emerged into a fifth-floor hallway and there wasn’t anybody there who wasn’t in a green jumpsuit. TJ announced, “Look who’s back!” A chubby black guy who looked like he’d been dozing in a wheelchair said, “Spider-Man! You escape or they let you out?”
Before I could answer, TJ said, “Let him out, dumped him off in the truck just now. He’s still groggy from when they sedated him.” To me, TJ said, “You hungry? They feed you?”
“If you got food, I’ll eat it.”
“Then follow me.” He continued down the hall. I got the feeling he was trying to pull me away from a conversation with Wheelchair Guy. From behind us he said, “Gonna need him out in the yard in about ten minutes. Buzzer sounded a while ago.”
TJ said, “We heard it. We’ll be there.”
We reached the last door at the end of the hall. Two hospital beds, some cardboard boxes on the floor that looked to be full of Ramen noodles, energy bars and bottles of water. In the opposite corner there were a dozen plain white plastic jugs, looked like old Clorox bleach bottles with the labels ripped off. Something was written on them in Sharpie but I couldn’t read it.
That came from one of the beds where a white girl with dreadlocks, thick-rimmed glasses and a pierced nose was turning a sheet of paper into origami. She was wearing a necklace that it took me a moment to realize she had made by stringing line through a half dozen of those red plastic caps from syringes. She gave me a smile that I thought would make cartoon songbirds come land on all of our shoulders.
TJ hurriedly closed the door behind me and said, “Got a complication here, babe.”
Dreadlocks Girl got a crestfallen look and said, “Oh, no. Please tell me—”
“No, no, it’s not that. He can’t remember anything.”
TJ looked at me and said, “Right?”
“You recognize her?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
Dreadlocks said, “Like amnesia? He doesn’t remember his own name or anything?”
“No, I remember everything until, uh, this. All this started. National Guard coming in and all that. I remember getting grabbed by some dudes and then I woke up in the dungeon. A little while ago.”
“You don’t know what they did to you? Over there?”
She said, “I’m Hope, by the way.” To TJ she said, “Maybe it’ll all come back to him?”
TJ shrugged and went to the window. The same busted-out window he had yelled from when I first showed up on the yard.
I said, “If you don’t mind replaying conversations I’m sure we’ve had already, can I ask what the hell is going on in general?”
TJ said, “Well, we’re in quarantine, and beyond that we don’t know shit. This hospital was full of CDC in biohazard suits for the first few days, they had all of us confined to rooms with guards in the halls. But then some of the guards got infected and that turned ugly. Screams from the halls. You look out there, those aren’t coffee stains on the tile. Then that was it, they bailed out. All the staff. Some of them got evacuated—you could hear helicopters on the roof—some they just left here, now they inmates like us. Some got taken across the way, where you just were. They just left the hospital to us.”
I joined TJ at the window and scanned the fences at the edge of the yard, trying to see what was behind them. I saw the tops of some white tents, but not much else. We weren’t high enough to see much into the distance.
I said, “So, what, the CDC just retreated over to the other building?”
“CDC gone, man. They left, these other people swept in. REPER. National Guard gone, too, they pulled out to the perimeter around the city. Left my ass behind.”
I said, “Wait, you’re the TJ John mentioned? You were on the scene the day it all started.”
“Yes, sir. National Guard. Deemed an infection risk. Some REPER motherfucker thanked me for my service, took my rifle and sidearm and left me on the wrong side of the fence. There’s more than a dozen of us in here. Least there was anyway. The first bunch of us on the scene didn’t have Level C suits or nothin’. Clusterfuck.”
From behind me Hope said, “Here” and handed me a crunchy granola bar, a little bag of peanuts and a “fun size” Snickers bar.
“There’s no hot water left from lunch or else I’d have made you some Ramen. Coffee’s gone, too. Didn’t last long. There’s bottled water on the floor there.”
TJ looked appalled and said, “Damn, girl. He gets the last Snickers? Almost had to wrestle a dude for that.” To me he said, “Don’t talk to nobody too much, all right? As you can probably tell from Owen down there—that was the dudebro with the big-ass hair and neck—things are kinda tense. Tell people you’re tired or you got that stomach flu or that you got a migraine. But I wouldn’t let it slip about the memory thing. No need for a complication. They all still need you out there, red and green both, so let’s not upset that balance until we got to. You’re our Spider-Man, and we don’t got a backup.”
“Okay why does everybody call me—”
A buzzer sounded, an angry noise like the expiring shot clock in a basketball game.
TJ said, “Showtime. You can eat that on the way down. Just follow my lead. Don’t say more than you have to.”
He picked up two of the bleach bottles from the corner and hurried out the door.
There were half a dozen of us clomping down the stairs by the time we reached the bottom. I had been shocked when Wheelchair Guy got up from his chair to follow us, for some reason it never having occurred to me that he was just using the chair as a chair and in fact had no disability. In the stairwell, Wheelchair said, “Owen been tellin’ people that he was gonna cure the whole next batch. Sayin’ it ain’t worth the risk.”