Prologue: Once I had words...
The end of the world: Horror stories told to send chills down children’s spines as they huddle under a blanket, holding flashlights to illuminate their faces. Movies and books told over and over of zombies, disease, war, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We were awash in it. ‘Preppers’ planned for it, preachers taught it, and politicians used it. But for all that, no one was really ready for it. My name is John Isaac Williams Jr., but almost everyone calls me Johnny- and I was certainly not ready, nor were my parents or the police or the government, none of us. But there was one man that helped me survive it. In fact, he helped a lot of people survive.
Before I tell you his story (and mine) there are a couple of things I want to get straight. First, I won’t lie. I may not remember everything correctly or at all, but I won’t lie. Second, days are not necessarily days, just a way to keep things in order. Third, since all this went down I’ve learned a lot about other people, and the things that they went through, so I’ve done my best to represent and retell what happened to them to the best of my ability. Lastly, there are no heroes in this story- with perhaps one exception- and I’ll tell you right now that the hero isn’t me and it sure as hell wasn’t Tucker. Now, quit interrupting, and let me tell the story.
Old Man Tucker lived at the end of our cul-de-sac. Well, more accurately, his house backed up to our street. It was a tiny, 1950s style ranch house with green mold on the gray shingles and a miniature forest growing in sagging gutters. I think the house was gray, but it was hard to tell. The front door was bright red, but in all the time I was there, I never saw it open. Not once. Old Man Tucker always entered through the kitchen door, which was hidden behind a pathetic screened-in porch with a flimsy door that banged loudly, just like a gun, every time he left or returned. Even after we knew that was what the sound was, it never failed to make us jump. Most people thought the house should be condemned- foremost was the homeowner’s association president, Mr. Franks. For several years they tried to get rid of him, but his house was not in our association, it just backed up to it, so there wasn’t much they could do except have meetings about it. Home values and bad influences were discussed in detail. They had a party when someone found out Old Man Tucker was renting. I thought the Franks were going to explode when they found out that Old Man Tucker’s son was the one that owned it.
Tucker was big, about 6 feet tall and close to 300 pounds. He had one of those beer bellies, but it wasn’t all fat. He had short, powerful arms and a thick, broad chest. His neck was so thick his head looked a little too small. His hair was gray and thin, almost wispy where he wasn’t bald and his mustache was so long it hid his upper lip. His eyes were tiny, close set and so dark they almost looked black under his bushy white eyebrows. He rarely spoke to anyone and kept to himself. This was enough for the kids and even some of the adults to start spreading rumors: a retired Mafia hit man or maybe on parole from a life spent in prison or a mental institution. Around Halloween the stories revolved around murders (and his probable cannibalism.) He had a son, right? Where was his wife, huh? That was proof enough for us.
Then one day things changed: Old Man Tucker got what my dad called his “fan club”. It was my little sister’s birthday. Lucy had just turned 5 and got what she had talked about for months- a new bike, pink with pink and white trim and even pink training wheels. She went crazy over it, running around in circles around it pointing out the features over and over again and how pink they were. You know, the wheels, the chrome bell, the seat, on and on and on. So, while my parents were getting the barbeque ready I went down the street to play with my best friend, Billy Driscol. Lucy climbed on her bike and started heading our way, ringing her bell. The bike leaned on one training wheel then the other, side to side. There must have been something in the way the bike moved or the ringing of the bell or just all that pink, but Toro, the Franks’ pure bred Cane Corso decided to put a stop to it. He charged after Lucy, not barking, but growling a terrifying deep growl I’d only heard in nature shows. We heard his nails clicking on the sidewalk as he accelerated towards my sister. We heard Lucy’s shrill scream and we turned to her, but we were frozen in place. I was almost thirteen, and I didn’t know what to do. She was too far away and Toro was too fast. He ran into the bike, his massive jaws first snapping shut on a tire and then right at Lucy, but she went flying when the bike crashed and Toro scrambled after her, snarling like something from Jurassic Park. So here was Lucy, a petite five year old, against a 120 pound dog that was like a pit bull on steroids. Duh.
Then, he was there: Old Man Tucker. He snatched Lucy up and hefted her high on his left shoulder as Toro charged them. Then Tucker did something that most people denied, but I saw it. It really happened. Old Man Tucker tossed Lucy to the grass, yelled at her to run, and when Toro jumped at him he shoved his left arm into the dog’s mouth. Then he grabbed Toro by the throat with his other hand and he lifted the dog into the air, his feet flailing, nails scratching Tucker’s chest as he tried to get free. Then he slammed that dog to the grass like a professional wrestler. It was like watching Frankenstein and the Wolf-man fighting it out. There was blood running down Old Man Tuckers arm then the dog started to whine, his eyes bulging out. I swear I think Toro knew he was going to die.
That was when Mr. and Mrs. Franks ran out of their house. They started screaming at the old man. Stuff like, “TUCKER! RELEASE OUR DOG!!” and a bunch of other things including some swearing (that I appreciated hearing.) Old Man Tucker lifted the dog by its throat once more, took two steps to build momentum and threw that dog like an old teddy bear. Toro had enough and he went scrambling toward home, whining and yelping his way through the Franks’ doggie door. The rest of the neighbors came out to watch the fun and, in short order, two police cars. Mrs. Franks was demanding they arrest Tucker, but it was hard for them since Mr. Franks was screaming at him so loudly the cops couldn’t ask any questions. Then Old Man Tucker started towards Mr. Franks, who was backpedaling so fast he tripped and landed on his butt in the grass just like his dog. The cops stepped between them and proceeded to surround Old Man Tucker, who was silent- I remember his face was dark and scowling, like a front of dark clouds. He didn’t say a word as the police interrogated him and the Franks in turn, which was shocking to me. Billy leaned toward me and whispered that the cops were calling for “backup.” It didn’t seem fair to me: one old fat man against four young men, cops with guns, what did they need backup for? Were they afraid Tucker was going to bleed on them?
Then came Mom. Dad said later that she was “madder than a wet hen” and while I have never seen a wet hen to this day, I figured that they must be pretty mad because Mom sure was pissed. Carrying Lucy on one hip like she weighed nothing, she stormed toward the group with her mouth drawn into a tight thread. I saw that face once before when my dad had too much to drink at a party at his office and was late coming home, teetering into the house after slamming into a telephone pole only a block away from home. My sister’s eyes were red from crying and her teddy bear- Ronald- in her arms. My Mom told the cops in no uncertain terms what had happened and that they had no reason to arrest Mr. Tucker. Things calmed down for a moment, and one of the cops went over to the Franks and explained to them that if Mr. Tucker decided to press charges against them for not controlling a dangerous animal then they would have to pursue it. Mr. Franks turned purple, which I though was hilarious. At the same time, one of the other cops asked Old Man Tucker if he wanted a ride to the hospital, to which he just shook his head no. I guess the cop told Tucker he could go and without a word, he turned, and started back home. Tucker and I made eye contact just for a second, and he really didn’t look angry or even scared. He just looked sad and very alone.
The next day I came in for lunch and Mom was taking a pie out of the oven. I asked her what kind it was and she said “Strawberry-apple rhubarb.”
“What is that” I asked.
“It’s an old-fashioned kind of pie, I guess.” she said, without looking back at me.
But when I asked if I could try it, Lucy, who was sitting on the counter next to it, screamed.
“NO! This is for Mr. Tucker.”
“Who is that?” I started to say, but then I figured out she meant Old Man Tucker, so I just nodded. Lucy carefully wrote “Thank You” (just like that, with a capital T and Y) in purple ink on a pink index card and together Mom and Lucy went to deliver it. I guess Old Man Tucker wasn’t home or at least he didn’t come to the door, so Mom and Lucy left the gift on a little garden table on his porch.
“Gee. Strangle one dog and you get a pie!” Billy lamented when I told him about it.
“Well if you strangle that dog I’m sure Mom will bake you one, too!” I replied.
“No thanks.” Billy said, glumly, “I would have to be alive to eat it.”
We both laughed at that.
The next day at our front door was the pie plate, clean and washed with a note it in for Lucy. The handwriting was a strange mixture of block and cursive- cursive lines with squat, capital letters. All it said was: “You are very welcome. ~Tucker.” She was still scared of him, but if she was around we had to say “Mr. Tucker” or she would go nuts, asking ’how many big dogs did I rescue her from?′ and stuff like that. Over time, even Billy and the rest of the guys indulged Lucy, and if she was there we all called him “Mr. Tucker” like she required. You know, like “Mr. Tucker the psycho,” or “Mr. Tucker the cannibal,” “Mr. Tucker the fugitive,” and other such things.
We had no idea that the seeds of destruction had already been sown and in just a few short weeks we would get to see the end of the world firsthand, and we certainly never expected that Old Man Tucker was going to become important to us as more than our childhood bogeyman.
We know, now, that the spawn were released high in the atmosphere months before. Slowly, they filtered down over all the continents. They only lived a day in the air and any that didn’t find a host just died. About one in five humans were either not exposed or there was something in their biology that killed it. Whatever the magic trait was, it tended to run in families. The spawn that found a host infected it, but it turned out that only about half of the infected- about 40 percent of humans- were suitable for incubation. As for the other 40 percent? What happened to those humans infected but unsuitable? Those spawn incubated as well, but into nothing more than a metaphorical cyanide pill. The day the swarm took over, the defective hosts died (or rather, were killed) by the spawn that infected them. You see, the spawn got into the blood stream through the lungs, and from there into the brain. They implanted themselves near the cerebral cortex at the back of the skull. For months they grew, unseen, asymptomatic, microscopic wiring nearly indistinguishable from normal human nerve tissue. They were integrating themselves into their host’s bodies.
The invaders merged into the host’s brain and spinal cord, first taking control of the body, and then it spread its tendrils into the rest of the brain. You would think that some doctor somewhere would have noticed something on a MRI or in a physical or something, but as far as I know, not one did. Apparently infected people enjoyed great health during incubation. Why? Who knows? Maybe it was a way to stay hidden; maybe to make better monsters? No one alive today knows for sure. The hospitals were full of people who didn’t change or die on the day. They got to be torn to pieces later by those that did.
All the spawn matured at almost the same time, within 24 hours of each other, taking over and erasing their host’s persona, feelings, memories, fears, and loves. All that made them human was gone: a parasitic frontal lobotomy. The infected, but unsuitable, died at the same time. Where the spawn was located allowed them to just shut down the host human: their lungs quit working, their hearts stopped beating. It was over in moments: if the invader did not kill the host physically, they did so psychologically. Just like their minds, their bodies weren’t human anymore.
In 24 hours, almost eighty percent of humanity ceased to exist. Almost six billion people were erased, in one way or the other. At first the possessed swarm was clumsy, like the zombies in the movies, and in fact, the shot to the head seemed to work pretty well. But, just like movie zombies, they were dangerous, fearless, and would tear a person to shreds. They killed to eat, sure, and they would eat anything they could catch, but what they wanted most was to eliminate their ecological competition: mankind. In the next two days the invader would gain proficiency controlling their host and in the following weeks, the body they controlled would become tougher, faster, stronger and more dangerous than we (or Hollywood) ever thought possible.