TJ got in front of me, pushing me back away from her. I said, “Okay, okay. You, uh, you said you got a cure, right? We’ve got a procedure here?”
TJ said, “Cover your ears, man.” He was cramming something into his ears, it looked like cotton balls. The people around me were covering their ears with their hands.
“But why are—”
Owen stepped up behind the girl, pulled an automatic pistol from his waistband, and splattered her brains all over the grass in front of her.
Her body flopped to the ground. The other three new arrivals flew into a panic.
I had thought everyone was covering their ears for the gunshot, but then the piercing shriek started, the cry of the spider creature. I wedged my fingers into my eardrums as hard as I could. I could still feel it vibrating my bones.
They worked fast. Owen—who I noticed had cigarette butts wedged into his ears—flipped the girl over. I could see the spider trying to detach and crawl out of her skull now, growing out of the girl’s mouth like a huge, grotesque black tongue. TJ uncapped both jugs, then carefully poured the contents of one jug into the other. Mixing something. After a moment, steam or smoke emerged from the opening of this new concoction. Owen stepped back and TJ poured the entire contents of the jug into the girl’s mouth.
The shriek was cranked up to a level that sent a tremor through my guts. The spider thrashed. The girl’s cheeks and lips dissolved under the acid, the liquid running out of ragged holes in her skin. The spider was dissolving, too, legs falling off as it thrashed.
Eventually, its horrific cries died down, and it was still.
Owen stuffed the pistol into his pants and grabbed the girl’s feet. He said, “Come on, before Carlos comes calling.”
The one I’d been calling Wheelchair Guy shouldered past me and grabbed the girl’s wrists. They dragged her toward the now-roaring bonfire. On the count of three they tossed her corpse right into the blaze, sending an explosion of sparks heavenward. The flames tore into her flesh and I smelled what I had mistaken for smoked barbecue ribs just minutes ago.
Then, finally, I saw.
In the bonfire. Bones and bones and bones. It was full of them. Blackened skulls and ribs and pelvic bones and straight leg and arm bones jutting out like sticks. Hundreds and hundreds of bones.
The girl’s hair was burning. Her jumpsuit was peeling off of her in black strips, like the skin on a hot dog roasted over a campfire. I was just talking to her.
I will remember that smell for the rest of my life. I will never eat meat again.
Owen said to me, “Get over it, bro. You got one more.”
“No. No. That … cannot be the only way to do this.”
Owen growled, “Bull shit. You didn’t have no problem when it was Sal you were callin’ out. Now you lose your fuckin’ nerve?”
“Man, I don’t remember—okay, look, that was then. That … that’s the past and it doesn’t matter now. I can’t do that anymore. I’m sorry.”
There was a commotion behind me and TJ shouted, “Hey! Stop! Don’t!”
He was shouting at Kevin, the basketball player kid. He was sprinting toward the fence. The kid leaped, landing halfway up the fence with his fingers hooked in the links. He scrambled up toward the razor wire—
He fell. He hit the ground like a crash-test dummy. Limp, dead weight. A pool of blood spread below his face. A chunk of his skull was missing.
I never heard the shot that took him out. I whipped my head around, looking for the gunman. I saw no one. In the sky were just some birds, gliding along with wings outstretched, riding the thermals, circling lazily overhead. Maybe they were buzzards, hearing the sounds of death like a goddamned dinner bell.
TJ said, “Stupid motherfucker. What, he thinks we’re all here because none of us know how to climb fences? Shit, I could have gave him an extension ladder, got one in the maintenance room.”
The Jonah Hill–looking kid was paralyzed with fear. His hands were still bound behind him. His eyes were wide, his lips were white, his mouth clamped so tight it was pressing the blood out of them. Owen walked up behind him and put the pistol to the back of his skull.
“You check him, or else we cure him right now. Him and everybody else who comes through that gate. Fuckin’ Carlos runnin’ around here, that’s bad enough. Now multiply him by three, or six, or a dozen. The feds will come into this place a month from now and find nothin’ but chunks of meat and bones and crawlin’ nightmares. Well I got a wife I’m gonna get home to. I got a kid I’m gonna get home to. The feds left us in here. Left us to get torn to pieces. We’re all we got. But when that gate finally opens and they give the all-clear, I’m walkin’ outta here. As a man. Help me, or don’t. It’s up to you.”
To the kid I said, “Open your goddamned mouth or he’s gonna shoot you in the head.”
The kid obeyed. I pulled at his lower lip, then his upper. The kid had braces. I saw nothing else.
Owen said, “You sure about that, now?”
Owen stashed the pistol and used a pocketknife to cut the kid’s hands free.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Corey. I think I’m gonna pass out.”
Owen grabbed a toppled wheelchair and sat it upright. “Sit down before you fall down.”
Corey did, putting his head in his hands, trying to wake up from what he surely thought was a terrible dream. Owen, TJ and Bruce the Wheelchair Guy went to go get the basketball player’s body away from the fence and presumably onto the fire. More bones for the pile.
From behind me I heard a warbly voice say, “This isn’t right. How can they allow this? Where’s the government? Where’s the army? Where’s the police?”
That was that first kid I’d checked, Tim, the geeky one. Without turning to face him I said, “I think we’re on our own, man.”
The men were dragging the basketball kid’s body toward the fire. I couldn’t watch this again. I turned to face Tim, who was sitting on the ground, cross-legged.
“Hey, I don’t think you’re supposed to sit on the grass. They get mad.”
“It … upsets Carlos apparently.”
“I dunno. The groundskeeper? I kind of just got here myself.”
I could feel something, a rumble at my feet. Faint, like somebody using a jackhammer nearby, or thumping bass-heavy music. But there was no sound, just the tremor in the earth. Then, people were running and shouting. TJ was sprinting toward us and waving his arms.
“Get up! Get off the ground!”
That finally convinced Tim, who unfolded his legs so he could get up—
His face froze, in an expression of confused shock. His jaw flexed, his mouth working to form silent words. His eyes met mine and I had the thought that this is what people look like when they’re suddenly stabbed from behind in an alley.
“Hey are you—”
He howled in pain. He pushed himself off the ground but he looked like his butt had been glued there. He screamed again, a garbled and halting sound, as if it was coming through a microphone that kept cutting out.
Summoning the thrashing, animal strength of a fox ripping off its own leg to get out of a trap, Tim got his feet underneath him and pushed his body up off of the ground with everything he had. He rose a foot off the grass, and in a brief moment I could see that something was still tethering him there. It looked like he was shitting spaghetti. A bundle of thin, writhing tentacles, turning and curling and spinning. Working their way up into his bowels from below, like a puppeteer.
Tim sat hard back on the ground. He screamed one last time, then spasmed into a seizure that mangled the scream into a spastic UCK-UCK-UCK chant. His eyes rolled back into his head. Sprays of blood erupted from his mouth. I thought I saw one of the thin, yellow spaghetti tentacles flick up between his teeth. Tim’s body thrashed once, twice, three times. There was a huge, wet slurping sound, and then he slumped over sideways.
When he did, he left behind a wad of guts the size of a potato sack. The yellow tentacles reached up and dragged the pink pile under the dirt, leaving behind nothing but a gopher hole in the ground, soaked in blood.
An out-of-breath Wheelchair Guy stopped behind TJ and said, “Fuckin’ Carlos, man. Told ya we shoulda killed him when we had the chance.”
TJ, seeming amazingly calm—
—because he’s seen this several times before oh goddamn oh holy shit—
—sighed and said, “Well. We didn’t know then what we know now, did we? What’s important is that we do know it now. And that we follow procedure.”
He stared at me. “Right, Spider-Man?”
I didn’t answer.
Owen stomped up behind them and jabbed his finger at me.
“He didn’t spot the girl. You notice that? Far as I’m concerned, that’s the last I want to hear about his so-called one hundred percent hit rate, bro.”
“Told you, he’s still groggy from bein’ in the hole.”
“Yeah, and about that. What went on over there? We don’t know, do we? That may not even be the same fuckin’ guy. He looks like he don’t even know who he is.”
TJ rebutted, “Yeah, and that girl was wearin’ red. Or did you not notice that, Owen? That’s three reds in a row. That’s easily three out of every four infected that was in a red jumpsuit when they burned. What does that tell you?”
“You want to have a talk about that, TJ? We’ll convene a panel. You, me and my Beretta nine millimeter. How about that?”
“Fuck you, man.”
I love the way black guys say “Fuck you.” Emphasizing the first syllable hard, like a verbal punch. I wondered if they practiced it in front of a mirror. TJ and Owen stared each other down for a minute, then TJ turned his attention to the curly haired kid. Corey.
“Come on, let’s go inside. It’s gonna stink real bad once all three bodies get to burnin’. Oh, and welcome to quarantine.”