Authors: Daphne Lamb
I couldn’t let him go through it so I went after him the long way around, trying to move soundlessly through the branches and leaves. My heart beat heavy and quick as I tried to catch up with him, stomach still making waves. He stepped into the clearing, and the crowd noise automatically stopped. As did my heart.
I watched him through the tree branches as he walked out, waving both hands.
“Hey, how y’all doing?” he asked in his overtly friendly way. He had a big goofy grin on his face, almost as though he were about to host his own talk show.
The RVers stared at him. No one smiled back. No one waved. They just stared in creepy unison, and he just kept walking closer. He spotted Steve Harks, gave him a goofy smile.
“Hey, man.” He offered his hand in greeting.
Steve ignored him and kept on walking.
He finally stopped walking and shoved his hands deep in his pockets. “Is Darren here?”
The people put down their plates.
“And what’s this I hear about appreciating surviving another day?” he asked.
They continued to stare at him. I cut through the clearing and took him by his jacket sleeve.
“Bruce,” I said, quietly.
He turned around and looked at me.
“You’re here.” He sulked. “Great. Turns out Steve Harks is a member. Nice of you to keep that to yourself too. I suppose you’ve been buddies with Liam Neeson this whole time.”
“We have to go,” I said. “Please.”
They closed in on us. The look in their eyes was pure malevolence, their hands clenched.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “I don’t understand this.”
He started to back up and tripped over my feet. I went to steady him, gripping him tightly as I threw my arms around his chest.
“Let’s just go.”
Darren stepped out of the crowd, his lips tinged slightly red, as if he’d eaten marinara instead of blood.
“You!” he said. “You’ve returned!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, trying to pull Bruce away. “He wandered away. I know he has no business here.”
I bumped into someone from behind. I turned and looked to see four of the members now holding me stationary.
Darren shook his head. “Sarah—”
“It’s Verdell,” I said.
“Why correct me?” he asked. “On your last night on earth, does it really matter?”
I swallowed hard, squeezed Bruce tighter.
“Please,” I said. “Just let us go. No harm done. We’re just lost, and we’ll survive on the other side of the hill.”
Bruce rolled his head back. “Darren?” he asked. “May I call you Darren?”
Darren stared him down with steely eyes.
“I would love to send you my reel,” he said. “Just to look at whenever you have a moment.”
“Your reel?” he asked.
“I was in a play that you reviewed,” Bruce continued. “I played the lead. Probably the most rewarding role I’ve ever experienced. You were nonplussed by the whole production. Frankly, I blame my costar. She didn’t understand the gravitas of her character.”
“Excuse me?” Darren asked.
“You called me Brian,” Bruce said. “You called me Brian Meals, but really, my actual name is Bruce Helio.”
Darren smiled and then withdrew his long, ragged homemade stick. Without an ounce of hesitation, he stabbed Bruce directly in the arm, grazing the side of my chest. Bruce immediately collapsed and gasped in pain. Blood oozed from the wound. He convulsed for a while, and I sank to my knees and threw my arms around him.
“It’s going to be okay!” I said, feeling panic grow. “It’s just your arm!”
“If I die,” he said. “Find my mom and tell her being an actor is a real job.”
“Well, no,” I said, trying to prop him up.
His eyes rolled into the back of his head, briefly making contact with mine as Darren poked the side of his body with his fancy foreign sneaker, which now had a ragged hole forming.
Hands grabbed me and pulled me to my feet, forcing me to let go of Bruce. Darren braced his stick. My mind reeled and the world seemed to move in slow motion, but in the far reaches of my memory, I saw myself as a twelve-year-old in karate class. I saw my old instructor.
“Strike the weakness,” he’d said. “Keep your head.”
With all my might, I stomped down on the foot of one of the robed men and jabbed an elbow into his side. He let go for long enough for me to slip through his hands. One of the other members tried to grab me as Darren aimed for me but missed. I held the palm of my hand out and shoved it with force into the other attacker’s nose. He screamed in pain, and I ran.
I ran and ran, tripping and falling, and at some point I banged my knee into a tree trunk, and it was then I stopped, out of breath and my mind reeling in fear.
I stopped long enough to hear the chanting below.
“He was not worthy for another day on this Earth!” Darren exclaimed.
The crowd cheered.
Poor Bruce. He was finally the center of attention and most likely getting a good review from Darren Warren. My body shook so badly the only thing I could do was fall to the ground.
It was so dark out, but I could make out the shadow of a cabin up ahead. The last thing I wanted was to die alone in the forest, so I took my chances and ran for it instead of the house.
worse than anything I had ever smelled and I gagged after taking a step inside. I felt something soft and squishy under my feet, which made me thankful it was dark. In the corner by a window was a chair, and I moved toward it and then grasped the back of it, vowing to not sit on the floor.
I covered my face with the lapel of my jacket to block some of the stench.
At least it makes for an easier breakup…
a tiny voice in my mind sputtered.
It was shocking that a thought like that even existed in my head.
“People are going to be much more sympathetic when they hear about it….”
I’m really not sure what I was more horrified about. The fact that I thought it or the fact that I agreed with it.
A shuffling came from outside, and I froze up again, nose still under my jacket. There were voices muffled and hazed, and I shivered in fear. I whispered a prayer under my breath and sank deeper into the chair, asking first for forgiveness for the horrible thoughts I’d had just moments prior.
“…and my BlackBerry still doesn’t work!” I heard the voice exclaim.
I jerked my head up and looked through a nearby grimy window only to see Robert shuffling through the dead leaves and holding up his device to the sky.
I almost breathed a sigh of relief, but the stench wouldn’t allow it. Immediately, a reflex in me, made me suck back in the breath, which caused me to retch on the floor.
Which was when Debra entered the room and saw me.
“Dammit,” she said. “A homeless person beat us here already.”
“It’s just me,” I said.
“That smell is you?” she asked.
“I don’t know what it is,” I said. “But it’s not me.”
“I don’t think there’s any way we can’t prove it,” she said. “So I’m just going to assume it was you.”
“How did you find this place? What are you doing?”
She covered her face with her hands as Robert entered.
“Debra made the toilets flow. Is there a working outlet in here?” he said. “What the fuck is that smell?”
“She says she doesn’t know,” Debra said, rolling her eyes. “I have my suspicions.”
“It’s not me!” I said. The hurt and desperation from everything was building and my voice cracked under its own weight. “I don’t stink and I’m not a bad person.”
“If you’re going to cry, you should pick something better to cry about,” Debra said. “Bruce was right.”
“Bruce is dead!” I shouted. “He’s dead. And now he’ll never apologize to me for being a jerk.”
Both were silent.
At that moment, I sobbed and couldn’t stop. The smell and thought of Bruce so violently killed was too much to handle, and it was the only thing I could think to do. I cried for not knowing if my family was alive. I cried because I was willing to spend my time doing data instead of something that really mattered, like looking after stray puppies or something. Debra and Robert just stared at me while it happened.
She shrugged and mouthed, “I don’t know.”
At some point, I felt someone rub my back in a slow comforting manner. I looked up and saw Robert standing next to me, his face full of genuine concern.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “What happened?”
“It’s those people,” I said. “The ones we took supplies from. I tried. I really tried to warn them and—”
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The stench in the room didn’t help either.
“You know what I like to think about in times like this?” Robert asked as he opened his risk management book and started to read. “It’s difficult to effectively respond to things like hours upon hours of complaining. Wanting to toot someone’s horn, but another team member getting upset at that. Wondering why the balance of power in the office suddenly shifts when a new employee is added. “
I was confused, and I looked at Debra, who nodded as if she heard rich, transcendent insights.
“I don’t think any of this applies.”
“Of course it does!” Debra snapped. “This is just basic logic. It’s like food for my soul.”
I looked up at Debra, who covered her mouth with her jacket.
“What are you both doing here?”
Robert took a deep breath. “There was an incident.”
Both of them exchanged looks.
“We were bombarded,” he said.
“They took everything,” Debra said.
“We didn’t have anything,” I said. “Did we?”
“I really wanted the rest of those pretzels,” she said.
“Of course.” I said. “Who was it?”
Robert shrugged. “They wore masks and made a lot of noise.” He rubbed his forehead. “It was terrifying.”
“Were they the people from the RVs?”
Debra gave me another dirty look. “How would we know?” she asked. “We weren’t special enough to go down there. At least according to you.”
“So masked people came and scared you into giving them your pretzels?”
“It’s more serious than that,” Robert said. “They wanted that house, and they wanted everything there and they didn’t care if we lived or died. They asked for you.”
“Me?” I asked incredulously.
Robert and Debra nodded simultaneously.
“But you made it out,” I said. “I’m sure there’s a million Verdell Sonobes. That could have been anyone.”
Debra nodded. “I thought if I let them see my boobs that would do it.” She started to cry. “They didn’t want to.”
“Wait,” I said. “Are you upset that they took everything or that no one wanted to see you naked?”
She angrily wiped tears away. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“Guess not,” I said. “Are you sure these people were looking for me.”
“Look,” Robert said. “We made it out and that’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter what we might have lost in the process.” He seemed momentarily shaken, but then recovered. “The question is what we’re going to do now.”
“We can’t stay here,” I said. “The smell alone is just one major reason.”
“Agreed,” he said. “What have you got?”
“What have I got?” I asked. “How would I know where to go from here? I got us this far and that was due to following around Priscilla.”
“Where’s she now?” he snapped. “If she’s so forward thinking, you should have kept up with her.”
There was an awkward silence.
Robert cleared his throat and went to speak again, but closed his mouth.
“I was hoping this day would turn around somehow,” Debra said. “Something tells me it’s all a wash.”
He snapped his fingers at her. “What was that place those hooligans were talking about?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What place?”
“That’s what I asked you.”
He sighed heavily. “They came into the house.”
“They threw me up against the wall.”
“I remember that.”
“They threatened me with a stick. It involved my bottom.”
“I was packing at that point.”
“Dear God!” I said. I touched his arm. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
He waved me away. “Think, Debra, think!”
She rolled her eyes into the back of her head.
“Were they all women?”
“Maybe,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “They kept talking about a base camp somewhere,” she said. “A bank maybe?”
“Are they coming back? Did they say how they knew me?” I asked. “Bank of America? Citibank? Which one?”
“Did they say there was sign?” Robert asked. “Maybe says Bank of America.”
I stared him down, but he ignored me.
“That’s exactly what I was just asking,” I said.
“Just trying to help.”
“Maybe we should head down that way,” I said. “It’s got to be better than waiting for cannibals to come and get us.”
“Cannibals?” Robert asked panicky. “More cannibals?”
Debra shook her head. “I don’t want to run into that gang again.”
“It sounds like they were just hungry,” I said.
“Of course! They wanted to eat us,” Robert said.
“Well,” Debra said, folding her arms. “You said cannibal and now it’s real.”
Suddenly there was a light that burst through the window. We simultaneously ducked.
“What was that?” Debra asked.
“Flashlight,” I said. “I think.”
“Stop talking,” Robert said. “Both of you.”
We crouched in silence as we could hear a shuffling that came from the outside. My first thought was that it was the weird commune from below, but there were no men’s voices.
The door slowly creaked open. The three of us huddled into the shadows.
“Oh, dear god,” one of the voices said.
The door quickly shut. “There’s a smell,” she said. “I think there’s something dead in there.”
“I’ll bet that’s what that smell is,” Robert said.
“Shhh!” I said.
“Wait,” Debra whispered. “Something’s dead in here? Where?”
“At least turn on a light!”
“I think now’s a fine time not to have any light.”
Debra began to hyperventilate. “I can’t. I can’t be in here now.”
“Please, Debra,” I said. “At least wait a moment.”
Her hand went to the top of my head and then found the door handle on the wall behind me. She jiggled it.
“At least someone turn on the light or something. I have to know what’s in here,” she said. “Verdell, you go first.”
“Absolutely not,” Robert said. “I don’t think this place has electricity anyway.”
Debra stumbled over me and jerked the door open.
“Don’t go out there!” I said.
She ignored me and shot out the door, arms flailing. Robert and I leaned up against the doorframe.
“Hey!” said a voice. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Don’t hurt me!” Debra said. “Don’t hurt me!”
“Take her down!” the voice called.
Robert took a peek outside.
“They’ve got an ATV,” he said.
“An ATV,” he said. “No one’s looking after it. They’re distracted with Debra. We can make a run for it.”
“I can’t even tell if she’s okay,” I said.
“She’ll be fine,” he said. With that, he dodged past me and out the door, laughing maniacally.
“She’s not alone!” I heard a voice say. “Check the house!”
I took a deep breath and launched out the door after Robert. I could only catch a glimpse of him as I ran blindly in his general direction, but I saw him jump onto the ATV, which was parked behind a tree. He gestured to me as I sprinted to meet him.
I climbed onto the back of it as he started it up. It jerked forward, and I almost toppled behind it, but I grabbed his waist and held on tightly as we sped off.
It then occurred to me that I was grabbing my boss by the waist. It was weird, so I loosened my hands slightly.
“Anyone behind us?” he asked.
I looked and saw nothing. “Nope,” I said. “You’re good.”
“By the way,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty bad wound where you were clutching. Do you mind putting your hands lower?”
And that’s when things got even weirder.
We drove down a bumpy, broken road when we noticed hastily made signs. The words were made with paint, which had been smeared or faded out by the rain.
I pointed one out to Robert, who slowed down the ATV.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“One of them says, ‘…tine,’” I said. “Like quarantine?”
“I’m following it then,” he said.
“At this point, what if it’s been abandoned with weird cult people who drink cat urine to stay alive? Or something worse. Like Libertarians.”
“I’m going to be impressed that they found a way to farm cats,” he said. “And thank you for making that a very real thing in my mind.”
“Which thing? The cult or Libertarians?”
And so we sped on.
The signs led us to yet another site, another large tent surrounded by more chainmail link fencing. More people huddled, more mud, wearing sad dirty ponchos. The sight of it alone made me deflate.
“These are our options now,” I said. “Being ushered like cattle or urine cabins.”
“Maybe they’ll have sandwiches,” he said.
I had to nod. That sounded awesome.
He pulled in through the slightly open gate and was immediately stopped by a security guard.
He stared at us through a shielded helmet. “Number please?”
“Excuse me?” Robert asked.
“Your quarantine number,” he said. “The one you were issued to get in.”
Robert looked at me.
I pulled out my bag and withdrew the green bracelet issued at the last point. “Does this mean anything? The green group?”
The guard looked at it, almost shocked.
“You were at the West Quarantine?” he asked.
Robert nodded. “Just a few days ago.”
“How did you escape?” he asked.
We both stared at him.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“We heard that the quarantine was taken down,” he said. “Our communication went out, but we expected some of our guys to come back from there. And they didn’t.” He took a deep breath. “Bunch of people got released into a storm of acid rain. Some punks tore the place apart looking for some girl.”
“Why didn’t you just call them?” Robert asked.
I leaned forward. “The communication was down,” I whispered into his ear.
“Does that mean we still can’t use the phone?”
I ignored the statement. “Is there room for us inside?”
The guard handed me back the bracelet. “Go right in,” he said. “You might as well stay, but who knows how long we have here.”
“Thanks, officer,” Robert said.
“Oh, I’m not an officer.” He shrugged.
Robert flared up the engine again, but the guard held up his hand. “You can’t bring that in here,” he said. “Uh, in fact, it’s ours now.”
Robert was visibly disappointed, but obeyed by dismounting. I watched as the “not an officer” took the ATV and drove off with it, laughing into the distance.
We walked into the tented area, which was packed with people, huddled cold and obviously low on optimism. Someone shoved a bundle into my arms. I looked down and saw it was a blanket.
“Find a spot,” the uniformed voice said. “Anywhere you can. We’re going to be sealing off the area as soon as the sun goes down.”