TJ said, “Well we gonna have to talk to Owen. But it don’t matter now, we got Spider-Man back. He hasn’t failed yet. You’re not goin’ to, right, Spidey?”
I started to answer but he cut me off with, “You do this, we’ll get you some rest. You probably just dehydrated is all.”
Out through the lobby and back into the yard. Everybody out there was standing and staring. Not at me, but at the fence, at the gate I had just come through.
Man, there’s no guard tower or anything. What would they do if we just tried to run? Just charge that gate when they open it …
Nobody spoke. I could hear the bonfire crackling. Somebody had thrown some more fuel on it since last time, piling the scraps into a pyramid shape to create that jet engine afterburner effect, for when you wanted your bonfire really, really hot. If there were soldiers on the other side of that fence, they weren’t chatting or shouting instructions or doing anything else. I couldn’t even hear idling engines. It really did feel like we were alone and I couldn’t shake the idea that we could just walk out. Maybe everybody with guns fell back and figured they would stop the outbreak at city limits. So why not break out of here?
And what makes you think the “infection” stopped at city limits, hmmm? Last time you saw these guys in action they didn’t exactly have shit under control.
There was a faded white line painted into the lawn, forming an arc around the gate like an NBA three-point line. No one crossed it. No one got within twenty feet of it. I opened my Snickers and shoved the whole thing into my mouth. I dragged my peanuts from my pocket—they had an American Airlines logo on the bag—and sat down on the grass.
TJ roughly grabbed my elbow and yanked me to my feet.
“Do not fuckin’ do that,” he hissed. “Shit, man, you forgot everything.”
I started to ask him if those two flimsy fences were really the only thing between us and freedom, but he shushed me. He leaned into my ear and whispered, “Listen, man. Buzzer sounds an hour before new arrivals. Buzzer means nobody gets within ‘run for it’ distance of the gate. It goes off again right before it opens, as a final warning. In a few seconds, truck gonna come through there. It’s gonna be full of new inmates, people they rounded up off the streets because they might be infected. They get processed over at the asylum and run over here. Then you gonna look at ’em and make sure they’re clean. Right?”
“And how exactly am I gonna—”
But I didn’t need to finish that sentence.
Check them for spiders.
Because I can see the spiders.
I’m the Spider-Man.
I glanced down at the two white jugs TJ had set at his feet. I found Hope standing behind me. She was chewing on her thumbnail. Nervous. Everybody was nervous. The air hummed with it. The fence closest to me displayed a picture of a woman’s lower body wearing only underwear, a pink slogan saying VICTORIA’S SECRET CHRISTMAS PANTY BLOWOUT.
There were some faint clicks and clanks in the distance—having heard it before, I knew it was the outer gate sliding open. Beyond the plastic sheeting of the inner fence, a military cargo truck rumbled in. We heard truck doors open and shut. Engine. Exterior gate again. Silence.
The shot-clock buzzer sounded once more, and the inner gate finally rattled open on its own. Laying on the grass, in the exact spot where I had been minutes ago, were four people. All of them young, looking to be college age. Three guys, one girl. The three guys were in green suits, the girl in red. Their hands were bound behind them.
“Goddamnit,” muttered Wheelchair Guy from somewhere behind me. “Wish they wouldn’t lay them on the ground like that. Those dudes are gonna get a shock one of these days when Carlos comes up for a snack.”
I swear that every other sentence somebody uttered in this place sounded like a foreign language. It was starting to piss me off.
The four new citizens of the Undisclosed Spider Quarantine stumbled awkwardly to their feet and shuffled into the yard. The split second the last one was through, the gate slid shut on its own. The mechanism was fast—I’d say two full seconds from fully open to locked.
The huge blond-haired guy—Owen, TJ had said his name was—shouted to them, “Welcome to quarantine. Please listen carefully to what I am about to say, and don’t talk until I’m finished. This will save you a lot of questions later.”
His voice echoed through the yard, huge lungs making the words split the air like a rifle shot in the woods.
“As you can see, there ain’t no guards here. There ain’t no feds, there ain’t no soldiers. They ran out on us several days ago. And that’s just fine with us. We have food and water and medical supplies, you are welcome to whatever you need. That’s the good news. Bad news is there ain’t no mail. There ain’t no phones, there ain’t no Internet, there ain’t no televisions or radio. What we’ve got, don’t get a signal. We are cut off.”
Owen paused, to let that sink in.
“Also, there’s no power. Maybe it’ll come back and maybe it won’t. We’ve been getting by without it and we will continue to get by, until somebody gets their shit together and comes and lets us out of this prison. Okay, so now that you’re caught up on all that, let me get to the important part. There’s a little more than three hundred of us in here. And not a one of us you see here is infected.”
Pause again. He made eye contact with each of the four, individually.
I thought Tennet said five hundred …
“Yeah. That’s right. Only reason we’re still stuck here is because even after nine days, the feds ain’t come up with a test that works. So they’re guessin’. And I’m gonna bet that none of you are infected, neither. So here’s how we do it. We got an expert here, who can spot infection on sight. He’s gonna look you over, and once you’ve got a clean bill of health, we’ll cut off those handcuffs, take you indoors and get you set up with a room and some blankets and whatever else you need. Sound good?”
Owen looked at me. The new kids looked at me. Everyone else looked at me. I was not breathing.
TJ said, “Do it, and then it’ll be done.”
He walked me up to the first guy, a geeky-looking kid with acne cheeks. He was squinting because he had apparently lost a pair of glasses at some point. TJ said, in a voice that suddenly reminded me he had spent some years in the military, “I’m going to need you to open your mouth for me, sir.”
The kid’s eyes darted around, looking for someone to rescue him from all this.
Man, chill out. I just need to check to see if a mind-controlling spider monster has possessed your head.
He opened his mouth. Looked like a regular human mouth. Lots of cavities in his back teeth.
I said, “He’s fine.”
The kid closed his mouth and his eyes at the same time. Relief rolling off him like a boulder. All at once it hit me that I was the most powerful man in the quarantine.
TJ said, “What’s your name, sir?”
“Tim,” said the geeky kid.
“Welcome to quarantine, Tim. We’re glad to have you.” TJ spun him around and pulled out a pair of wire cutters. He snipped the plastic bands that served as handcuffs and the kid immediately rubbed the deep red marks on his wrists.
I moved to the next kid. Tall, square jaw. Probably played high school or college basketball. Without me asking, he opened his mouth and moved his tongue around, making sure I could see everything. Confident. Here was a guy who’d never failed a test in his life, mental or physical. Probably be a senator someday. Perfect teeth.
I said, “Yeah, he’s fine.”
This one said, “Kevin” as TJ snipped off his cuffs. “Kevin Ross. And I can climb that fence in about ten seconds if we can get something draped up over that razor wire. Rip up some carpet from in there, something like that.”
TJ said, “Yeah, that thought was thought before. Didn’t work out so well.”
Two people left now, the girl and a kid with curly hair who reminded me of Jonah Hill’s character in Superbad.
The girl was next. She was a hippie. I could tell, even dressed in a red prisoner jumpsuit. She had some haphazard braids in her hair, and that dopey trusting look in her eyes, like she was seeing the goodness of your soul at a glance.
She gave me what I can only describe as a tragic smile and in a shaky voice said, “Hi. What’s your name?”
“David. Just open your mouth for me, okay?”
“I feel like I’m going to be sick, David.”
“I’ll stand off to the side, then. This’ll only take a second.”
She smiled again. A tear ran down her cheek.
I said, “Come on, open up.”
She did. She was a smoker, apparently, the front teeth had some yellow. Not a single cavity, though. Good for her.
She was fully crying now.
I said, “It’s fine, it looks fine. You can calm down, okay? We’ll all get through this.” I put a hand on her arm. Look at me, acting all in charge and professional.
Don’t worry! I’m the expert!
She whispered something between sobs that I couldn’t make out.
“What was that?”
“I can if you want but—”
“Because a week ago I had a pierced tongue, with a stud in it.” She squeezed her eyes and sobbed, trying to suck in breaths to get the words out. “And now I don’t.”
“What? I don’t under—”
But I did understand.
She woke up one morning, and realized her mouth was not her own.
Oh Jesus no no no.
She held her mouth open, extra wide this time. I didn’t want to look. But I couldn’t help it. And, of course, I saw it. Between her lower front teeth and her lower lip, two black mandibles rested there.
I recoiled in horror, and everybody nearby reacted with me.
Owen was already on the move, striding toward the girl from behind, with purpose. She went down to her knees, weeping.