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Authors: Edward W Robertson

Breakers (7 page)

BOOK: Breakers
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A breeze blew down the tunnel, carrying the scent of cold wet laundry. At least the trains were still running.

Home, first thing he did was get in front of a mirror and tug up his shirt. Three inch-long sets of stitches tracked the left side of his stomach, looking sickeningly like ingrown hairs, but deliberately placed, as if he'd been plowed and seeded. He let his shirt fall back into place.

Online, he learned he'd missed Vanessa's funeral. Google alerted him to the death of the Reverend Frank Phillips, 72, infamous picketer of soldiers' funerals, dead of the Panhandler virus. MSNBC.com estimated the American death toll in the hundreds of thousands, with more by the minute. Millions worldwide. His mom had left five messages on his phone. She and his dad were sick.

She didn't answer his call. He stuffed some clothes in a backpack, washed a hydrocodone down with some whiskey, and caught the subway up to Grand Central, where he bought a ticket to Long Island. A towering black cloud rose from Midtown, spilling out over the Upper Bay. His fellow passengers—a dozen or so, three of whom, like him, showed no sign of the cough or watery, bloodshot eyes that formed the virus' early symptoms—watched in silence, detraining one by one in the quiet Island townships. He got off in Medford a little after eleven. His mom still wasn't answering her phone.

Though he'd quit a few months back, he bought a pack of Camels at a Shell station that, by the look of it, was the only open store on the street. On his way to the exit, he turned around and bought three packs more. After so long, the smoke tasted ashy and bitter. The way nonsmokers smell it. His head went tingly and light. If he hadn't had to slow down to keep his balance during the head rush, he would have tripped over the body sprawled on the sidewalk.

Walt crossed to the far sidewalk. Crickets chirped tentatively from dark lawns. TV screens threw pale flickers on closed curtains. A dog whined from behind a chain link fence. The windows of its house were black. Walt crossed the yard, dew dampening his Converse, and knelt in front of the small black dog, which waved its thick tail and battered at the fence with heavy white paws. He fed it Bugles from the bag he'd brought with him and scratched its ears. He barely felt his stitches; his breathing felt good. He told the dog it was good. He drank from his pint of whiskey, glass glinting in the darkness. The base of his throat burned but his stomach felt warm.

"Good dog."

The dog whined, licking his hand as hard as if he'd been swimming through butter. He had another drink. He was delaying. He stood, stomach tugging, and walked on.

He let himself inside. His parents' house smelled the same as his apartment the night he'd come home from work. His mom was a bloody thing in her bed. He found his dad crusted to the wheel of his Jaguar. The car was off and the tank was still a quarter full; probably, he'd died of the virus instead of exhaust.

Walt took the money his dad kept above the bookshelf, found a butcher knife and a steak knife, then gathered up the bottle of scotch his dad had been saving since Walt had been born. He sat down on the front porch and had a drink from the scotch and lit another cigarette. Once he'd smoked it to the butt, he called the police and walked back to the train station. He fell asleep watching cartoons on his apartment couch.

While everything else began to shut down—schools, local governments, Taco Bell, commercial airlines, the borders—television stayed strong. Amidst Wile E. Coyote and Marvin the Martian blowing themselves up, Walt heard sirens, gunshots, screams. While Stimpy gave Ren a sponge bath, Walt smelled smoke and tear gas and burning meat. When the news informed him an estimated 35 million Americans had died, that an estimated 90% of the remaining populace showed signs of infection, with similar incidence rates worldwide, Walt got up, roamed the apartment, and reread Vanessa's letter.

At least she'd never actually broken up with him.

Maybe she'd never intended to. He had no way of knowing. Maybe she'd written it to see how it would feel, to see if she believed it. Vanessa was gone now. The letter, her rehearsals with Mark (had he died, too? Walt hoped so, that hard-abbed prick), Walt's hopes for another day with her like their day in Central Park, those were nothing but lost possibilities, could-have-beens rendered moot by an invader too small to see. Walt sat down on the bare box spring that had held the mattress where Vanessa had died. He didn't see a future where the rest of mankind didn't die with her. Whatever Obama said, with three quarters of a billion dead just three weeks after the first case and with no cure in sight, Walt figured an average cricket match would outlast civilized society. But the Panhandler didn't just mean the extinction of people. It meant the extinction of dreams.

Walt had wanted to write books. He'd never finished one, had never seen his works go to print where they'd shout
This is how I feel. If you feel like me, that means we're not alone
. He supposed it wouldn't matter soon. Soon, people wouldn't be using books to find understanding. They'd be using them for kindling.

His parents had been talking about retiring soon. Scaling back, at least, to pilot their balloons on trips of their own, challenging records, touching down in Greek islands where the seas were as green as skinned avocados. They'd died having worked their whole lives. And honestly enjoyed it, by and large. But they'd wanted, expected, and deserved more.

Vanessa had wanted to move to Los Angeles, to see if she could make the leap from stage to screen. She'd never made it out. He supposed he was partly to blame: whenever she brought it up, he said little and changed the subject readily, not wanting to leave the city that had become his home, fearful that removed from his environment, adrift among the millionaires and fakers of LA's shallow social seas, he would lose her to a producer in a Mercedes, a confident fellow actor-on-the-up. What was so great about the place, anyway? Along with Woody Allen's arguments, which were irrefutable, weren't they coughing up blood and bleeding out their eyes the same in LA as they were in New York? All the sea breezes and sunny weather in the world couldn't combat
that
. Vanessa's letter had once again declared her intent to move there. What had she expected? To be carried into town by a parade, delivered at the feet of Steven Spielberg, and be cast on the spot as the lead in
The Woman So Beautiful All the World Loved Her Forever
? Delusions. Delusions and ignorance, most of it willful. The second time she'd brought it up, maybe he should have agreed to go with her, just to prove there was nothing magical about the place, that plenty of people more talented than either of them had failed and starved there on the edge of the Pacific, that it doesn't matter
where
you are, all that matters is
who
.

But she was dead now. The dinosaurs had all died, too, along with their dinosaur dreams. A world capable of such genocidal indifference didn't deserve its own existence. Walt wanted to watch it wither, to crumble into shit and dirt, fertilizer for a future that would one day crumble itself.

He decided to walk to Los Angeles. He intended to die along the way.

7

 

Under the afternoon sun, Raymond touched the warm metal revolver. Sweat slipped down his temples. Lights whirled from the cruiser's roof.

"Get your hands up and step away from the car!" the officer shouted.

Time became something that happened elsewhere. Raymond could see the silvery snaps on the cuffs of the officer's sleeves. The sight at the end of his pistol. A mole on the side of his neck.

"I'm just here to feed my family."

"Hands up or I spread you like mustard!"

Half hidden behind his car, Raymond eased out the revolver, slung it into the far corner of the trunk, and raised his hands. They'd find it. He knew that. He just wanted to introduce deniability. He took a slow step from the car. The cop sidled from behind his door, relaxing his elbows, black pistol swallowing the sun.

From the front of the Ralph's, three quick shots spooked a flock of screams. Raymond flinched down, shoulders scrunched against his head. The cop twitched his gun, following him, then aimed it upright and charged across the sunny lot. His partner spilled out of the car and followed on his heels. Raymond pawed the rest of the groceries into his trunk, slammed it, squeezed in behind the wheel, and pulled out. Shoppers ran past, covering their heads and ducking, pinging erratically across the asphalt. Raymond swung around a woman carrying a kid in her arms. A shopping cart banged off his bumper. The abandoned cop car stretched across the exit. He rolled up beside it, left tires shuddering over the concrete-bordered strip of grass that ran alongside the lot, then jolted back down into the road with a harsh metal screech. Back at the front of the Ralph's, gunshots popped in the humid air. Raymond finally registered the upcoming light was red and stomped the brakes, his car bucking stopped six inches from the rear bumper of an Expedition.

Hands shaking, he waited for the light to turn.

His senses returned homebound on the PCH. It had happened so fast, shortcircuiting his rational thought. The cop with the gun, had he known or suspected Raymond of looting? Had he been stopping everyone to sort it out? Had Raymond seriously considered, however briefly, pulling his gun? Had he intended to bluff, or try to shoot his way out, envisioning arrest for armed robbery, an impossible bail, years without Mia? On the other hand, why not?—but maybe for a lesser crime. Was it better to go to jail than to go broke?

He didn't know. All he could remember was the glint of the officer's buttons, the small black brick of his pistol, the sense his world was about to slip beneath the breakers. Yet he'd thrown down the gun. A stranger had fired his own instead. Raymond's future had popped above the waves, taken a juddering breath, and resumed paddling.

He pulled into his driveway. Time to recohere. You become what you pretend, so pretend to be something good.

In the trunk, he hid the revolver under an old coat and started hauling groceries. Mia smiled at him from the recliner. "How went the job hunt?"

"Riotous."

"At you? Or with you?"

"Literally." He set down an armload of cereal and tomatoes and shook his head like they were discussing a 6-year-old dragged under by a shark. "I'm picking up some applications at this strip mall, right. So I see the Ralph's is having this big sale. Go inside, load up my cart, and all of a sudden everyone starts looting the place."

Mia sat up, plunking her elbows between her knees. "Looting? Really? Did the Lakers win again?"

"I think people are afraid."

"Should we be?"

"Do you feel sick?"

"No." She smiled then, chin tilted. "So you robbed the place blind, right? How much bacon did you get?"

He looked up, thinking. "About five packs?"

"Wait, you
did
?" She glanced to the side, as if seeking the support of an unseen audience. "Does this mean I'll finally realize my lifelong dream of sleeping with a felon?"

"Possibly. Will you still be turned on if it turns out I'm just a misdemeanist?"

"So what
happened
?"

"One minute I'm piling up the rice and things, the next minute everyone's screaming and stampeding for the door. Somebody had a gun, was waving it at the checkout lines. I just got out of there."

"And the groceries got with you."

He shook his head again. "It all happened so fast. I didn't have time to think. Do you think I should take them back?"

"I don't know." She tapped her teeth. "I think if you go back, you're confessing. Places like that have insurance, don't they?"

"I think so." He jerked his thumb toward the door. "Want to give me a hand?"

Mia unfolded from the recliner. "What, and be an accessory?"

Which was exactly why he hadn't told her the truth. He waited for a knock, a call, a radio crackling from his back steps—he had to protect her from those consequences. He went online to see what the news had to say about them and found his looting had been the third of the day. A Best Buy in Long Beach, the usual steroes and TVs carted out through broken windows by brown people, but also a Sprouts in Torrance, blonde mothers clinging to their kids with one hand and stuffing organic heirloom tomatoes into their purses with the other. Watts caught fire the next day, smogging the valley. At night, sleek black SUVs rolled down the curvy lane. Glass shattered down the street; later, Raymond rose for a glass of water and saw his windows painted by the spinning lights of a cruiser. Two young Hispanic guys lay facedown on the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind their backs, a potbellied white cop shouting at them as he paced. Raymond could see no obvious evidence of a crime. He moved the revolver to a drawer in the bedroom.

Craigslist blossomed with security-wanted ads. Raymond embellished his resume, added a paragraph about his home invasion defense experience. He got a call later that day for an interview up the street in Palos Verdes.

While Mia, still home from work, researched mortgages and liens and applied for credit cards (both of them had somehow made it this far in life with nothing more than debit cards), Raymond drove up the winding roads into the ocean-gazing hills, his dusty Altima conspicuous among the glassy-bright Benzes and Porsches, and pulled onto the long driveway of a Tuscan-style manor fronted with whip-thin, forest-black pines. From the third story of its wide-windowed turret, a curtain fell closed.

A middle-aged Asian man in suit and glasses answered the bell. Raymond's sneakers squeaked on the stone floor. Should have worn something black and shiny as a beetle's back. Oh well, regrets were no use: Just do better next time. The servant led him to a well-lit study of thick white carpets. A fresh marine breeze slipped through the slats built into the wall. From behind a glass desk, Kevin Murckle picked at a stain on his wash-worn t-shirt, looked up, and snugged his surgical mask into place.

"Frankly, I'm looking for someone bigger. Possibly blacker. A shaved head helps."

BOOK: Breakers
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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