That night, Anna sat on the couch, laptop perched on her legs. Luke sat next to her, eating a can of beans. Jackson rolled a toy police car across the carpet, and Amelia scribbled with crayons on a large sheet of paper.
“We should watch this,” Anna said to Luke, tilting the laptop towards him. “Everyone’s sharing it.”
“What is it?”
“Footage of Palm Sands from earlier in the afternoon. Already up to over a million views.”
“Look at those comments,” Luke said, through a mouthful of beans. “Kill them all! bomb the city!”
“That’s the internet for you,” she replied, pressing play.
It was aerial footage. The chp-chp-chp of helicopter blades pounded through the speakers. Below, standing next to Egret Grove, was a crowd of people. Every head was turned, staring at a lone bearded man crossing the street.
When the man noticed the crowd, he tried to turn around. Tried to run back to where he came from.
He wasn’t fast enough.
Two men grabbed him and dragged him towards the swamp. They pulled him, thrashing and kicking, into the water.
They nodded at each other.
In one powerful motion, they pushed his head underwater.
His body writhed and thrashed, sending a thick spray of water in every direction. More of the infected swarmed over, their hands joining on his head. Above the chp-chp-chp of the helicopter, their voices could be heard.
After a few minutes, the splashes ceased.
Luke stared at the screen with wide eyes. Rudy was wrong. Earl Grey doesn’t just turn some small percent of the population violent.
It turns them all violent.
A voice erupted through the speakers, muddied with feedback. “Down! Down!”
The helicopter started to descend.
Oh, no. Luke’s heart pounded. They’re trying to save him. The footage wasn’t live, but even so, his inner voice screamed: Don’t do it! Please, don’t do it!
The helicopter landed in the picnic area, about twenty feet from the water. The footage bounced as the cameraman ran across the pavement, towards the pond.
The singing stopped.
A stampede began. The infected swarmed the cameraman. They were blurred into unrecognizable, pixelated blobs from the motion of the camera, but a few hands could be seen. Outstretched, grabbing at him.
“Hey, stop!” he screamed, his voice tinged with panic.
He lifted the camera towards the crowd. The image became clearer.
He recognized them. Kevin. Judy. Evan.
Their faces were slightly distorted, just like Rudy’s was. Gaunt, sunken cheeks and unnaturally large eyes. Smiles that stretch a little too far. Eyes that flash red.
The video jittered and flickered. A crack, followed by a pained yell.
The screen cut back to the newscaster. “That disturbing footage was taken earlier today in Palm Sands. We still have a quarantine around the city, but it’s possible some have slipped out under the radar. All of us must be on the lookout for the infected.” She smoothed her hair, making a poor attempt to look undisturbed by the footage they just saw.
She continued: “Signs of infection are red eyes, a gaunt or misshapen-looking face and violent outbursts. We also now believe that the longer someone has been infected, the more violent they are. Which may be why these people drowned an innocent…”
Luke reached over and closed the laptop.
“Hey! I wanted to see what she said!”
“I don’t want Jackson and Amelia listening to this.”
“They’re not even paying attention!”
Jackson was studying the underside of the car, running his chubby little fingers across the wheels. Amelia was drawing pictures of horses with a rainbow of crayons.
“Remember the last time we let the kids get involved in adult problems?” Luke lowered his voice to a whisper. “When we explained to Amelia that we didn’t have enough money, and that’s why we were moving back in with Grandma and Grandpa?”
“That was your idea,” Anna huffed. “Teach the kids financial responsibility, and they’ll never be poor like us!” she mocked.
“I know. But it wasn’t good for her. Remember what she did? She lied to us. She told us, numerous times, she was visiting Kayla in the city… but instead, she was sitting in the gutter, begging for money.”
Anna sighed. “Yes, I remember that.”
“The instant we left Kayla’s house… she put on her old torn dress, left the apartment, and sat on the sidewalk. She’d sit there for hours, telling people sob stories about how she was a homeless kid. She even got Kayla in on it. Made her to lie to the babysitter so we didn’t find out.” Luke sighed heavily, and glanced at Amelia’s small form. “All to earn money so that ‘mommy and daddy won’t be poor and sad.’”
Anna laughed. “She actually made a pretty penny doing that. What’d she have after a month of it? Two hundred dollars?”
“Anna, that is not the point!”
She stared at him. “What’s going on with you? You’ve been acting like you have a stick up your ass the entire day.”
Luke winced. He’d never quite gotten used to Anna’s blunt, crude language. He’d always been a soft-spoken man, growing up in a house where saying crap earned you a week without dessert.
“I’m just nerved up about all of this,” he said, finally. Family problems, money problems, this outbreak... And what’s in the trunk, out there in the hot Florida sun. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’ll take them into the other room. You can keep watching.”
“Daddy, can we play airplanes?” Amelia shouted, following him into the living room. “Please?”
“Okay, okay, Amie,” Luke said with a smile.
Amelia stuck out her arms sideways, running haphazardly around the room while making sputtering noises. Luke followed, his arms out too.
“I’m going to shoot you down!” she giggled. “Pew! Pew! Pew!”
“What, you’re a war plane now? I thought you were a passenger aircraft!”
“I changed my mind! Pew! Pew!” She made explosion noises. “Ah! I got you! You’re gonna crash!”
Luke dramatically crumpled to the floor, making a dry choking sound.
Jackson stared at them both, watching wordlessly before he turned back to his toys.
“And they lived happily ever after,” Luke said.
Amelia looked up at him, the covers pulled up to her neck. In her hands she clutched an Amelia Earhart doll, complete with cloth goggles and a little plane sewed to her hand. She’d slept with that doll every night for the past two years. The thing had gotten so grungy that Anna refused to touch it.
“Will we live happily ever after, Daddy?”
Luke looked down into her soft brown eyes, a pang of sadness in his chest. She was such a sweet little girl. Even though he’d spent much of his life trying to reign in her stubborn, free-willed nature, he loved her more than anyone did.
He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a tight hug. “Of course we will, Amie. Why do you say that?”
“Because something bad is happening to the city. There are evil people.”
“Who told you that?”
Luke sighed. Anna not censoring herself around the kids, as usual, he thought. “We’re going to be just fine, okay?”
He wrapped her into a tight hug. “I promise, Amie.”
She was quiet for a long time. Then she finally said into his shoulder: “Okay, Daddy.”
He got up from the bed. “Goodnight, Amie.” Click – he turned out the light.
Luke made his way to the master bedroom. The door was open a crack; a dim, flickering light spilled out from within.
He pushed open the door.
Anna was waiting for him. She was dressed in a black chemise – something he hadn’t seen her wear in several years. Her long, dark hair trailed down to her waist. A few candles stood on the dresser, their lambent, golden light filling the room.
“For a second, I thought the house was on fire,” Luke laughed.
“Oh yeah. I just took my dad’s gasoline, poured it all over the place, and set it on fire.” She rolled her eyes. “No. I wanted to do something special tonight.”
“I’m down for ‘something special,’” he said, with a suggestive laugh.
Anna walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him. She unbuttoned his shirt; her nearly-bare body grazed his chest.
He leaned down and kissed her. The kiss was soft, long, romantic – far more than the quick kisses they’d shared every morning when Luke left for work, and every evening when he came home.
“You taste like beans,” Anna said, when she pulled away.
“Sorry. We’re almost out of toothpaste, so I’m trying to ration it.”
“Oh, how sexy.”
She kissed him again.
His mouth brushed across her face, dipped down to her neck. Her hands swept along his back. She felt a rush of excitement as he pulled her towards the bed.
Jackson’s loud wails came through the wall.
“I’ll get him,” Anna grumbled, throwing on a shirt.
Luke rolled over and looked at Anna.
She looked beautiful, even though she’d cried herself to sleep. After they’d made love, after she thought Luke was asleep, she’d held Jackson’s stuffed teddy bear and sobbed into it. She’d been doing it for months now. Mourning their little boy, who they expected would soon be gone.
Each time it broke Luke’s heart – but he always pretended it didn’t happen the next morning. Anna didn’t like him seeing that sad, vulnerable side of her.
He pushed himself up. The bed groaned and wobbled, but Anna didn’t stir.
He shimmied on his jeans, throwing his shirt over his head before tiptoeing to the door. Outside, the house was quiet. Only the hum of the fridge and the tick of the grandfather clock broke the silence.
Thump, thump, thump.
He padded across the carpet and into the kitchen. He rummaged through the junk drawer and pulled out a flashlight. Holding his breath, he slid the door open, enjoying the cool night air as it swept over his face.
Luke stepped out into the night. The porch light faded with every step, and the humid air clung to his face. The usual song of crickets and wind was quieter than normal, almost as if they knew about the turmoil happening miles away.
He walked over to his car, nervously popping the trunk open. The flashlight’s beam fell over a motionless arm, then a chest, then a face. Pallid skin, closed eyes, and a half-open mouth. The gash across the corpse’s throat had faded from bright red to rusty brown.
Luke slipped his hand into Rudy’s pocket, rummaging around for a moment. The clothing, and the skin, were both cold and stiff. His face was still oddly gaunt and distorted.
Luke pulled his hand out of the pocket.
In his palm sat his tacky class ring and a little gray pill.
With a grunt he pulled the body out of the trunk, dragging it unceremoniously past the bushes and brambles to the edge of the yard. Then he grabbed a shovel and started to dig, the sound hushed in the pre-dawn shadows.