Chapter 4: Milk and Honey
My phone’s battery charge ticked down from two percent to one percent.
I shifted my weight and changed the angle of my head on Bryce’s knee. I managed to find a slightly less cramped position.
We’re just in bed, I kept trying to tell myself. We’re just in bed, under the covers, in a dark room. Soon, I’ll just fall to sleep.
I was scrolling through photos of my family. Any second now my phone’s screen would switch off, and I wanted to see everyone one last time.
I was looking at Tyler and Haley in the photo I took of them before Tyler’s first football game. He was lifting Haley off her feet, and they were both smiling ecstatically. I flipped to the next image. There was Shawn and me right after our wedding. He was thinner and looking happier than I’d seen him in a long time. Flip. There was my mom, knitting on the sofa. Flip. And there was my dad. He was fishing. He was sitting in the old lawn chair he always took to the river, gazing at the camera with the gentle look that was unique to my Dad.
I felt my chin start to quiver. Tears started to well in my eyes. I couldn’t help it. Of all the people I’d never see again, I thought I’d miss my dad more than anyone else. I tried to cry quietly so Bryce wouldn’t hear me.
I wiped my eyes with my shirt collar. When I opened them a text had appeared on the phone’s screen.
Could this be possible?
I looked at the cell reception meter. One tiny bar had appeared, then it quickly vanished. For a moment my phone must have gotten just enough reception for an old text to come through.
It was from Shawn:
i know where u r
why out there?
r u with bryce t?
My eyes flashed over the text, then I read it over a second time. What did it mean? How could Shawn know where I was? Had he somehow traced my phone? Did he know I’d been buried alive? If so, what did he mean by “out there?”
My phone’s screen went black. The battery was dead.
It started as a low rumbling sound. I was breathing so fast now I could barely hear it, but it was there. I was taking in deep gulps of air, and I still felt like I needed even deeper and deeper breaths. I’d never experienced any feeling like this except maybe in high school after I’d sprinted around the track. I knew I was about to pass out any minute now.
The coffin started to creak, and as the rumbling noise grew louder the earth started to shake a little. Bryce, breathing as frantically as I was, started banging on the lid. Little bits of dirt fell on our faces.
When I felt the coffin lurch, for a moment I thought it had caved in. But then I realized we were being pulled out of the ground. Before I could even process the fact that we’d been saved, someone had pried open the lid by a couple of inches. There was a flood of cool air and bright light. I swallowed gasps of the fresh oxygen as if I’d just been deep under water.
Bryce kicked the lid fully open.
The sky was overcast, but it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden daylight. Someone was kneeling over the coffin with a crow bar. A man. He was wearing a combat helmet. As his face faded into view, I found myself staring at the last person in the world I thought I’d see.
It was Jason Gibbs.
I hadn’t thought about Jason since I’d broken through the police barricade at the fair.
“Fucking hell,” he said. He turned and called out over his shoulder, “Just in fucking time!”
Then I saw who he was calling to. It was Shawn. He was climbing down from a backhoe.
Jason held out his hand and helped me out of the coffin. I was still dizzy.
“Jesus Christ, Ashley,” he said. “You better be so fucking glad we got issued these GPS phone trackers. How the fuck did you two get in there?”
I ignored him and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. We were in an open field whose soil had been heavily turned over. In addition to Shawn and Jason, three other men where standing around an idling backhoe. All of them were wearing the same kind of combat gear as the men who had come to the house: helmets, flak jackets, boots, and they were all carrying semi-automatic rifles.
Shawn kept his gun casually pointed at Bryce while another of the men put him in handcuffs. He hadn’t even stepped out of the coffin yet.
“What is this?” Bryce was still catching his breath. “You can’t do this. Why are you doing this?” Bryce looked at his bound wrists, bewildered. “You can’t . . . Are you the police or what?”
“Home Guard rangers.” My husband was speaking in an official tone I’d never heard him use before.
Jason shoved Bryce with his rifle. “Just finished crash training yesterday, bitch!” He grabbed Bryce’s arm and dragged him toward a huge military vehicle parked behind us. “And your ass is under arrest!”
Shawn held a pair of handcuffs toward me. For a moment I had an irrational flash of pride that he was finally applying himself. But instead of joining the highway patrol he’d become some kind of paramilitary Nazi.
“Give me your hands,” he said. He wouldn’t even look at me. “Give me your hands, ma’am.”
I gingerly held out my hands. “Shawn, why are you doing this?” I searched the faces of the other so-called rangers. I didn’t recognize any of them. “Where’s Ian?”
Shawn wouldn’t answer.
“I’m your wife,” I pleaded. “What is this?”
My husband just cinched the handcuffs tightly around my wrists. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. There were two other backhoes parked on the loose soil, the military vehicle, and otherwise just a low, gray sky. We were someplace far outside of town.
“What is this place?” I tried to look Shawn in the eye.
No response. Shawn and one of the other men grabbed my shoulders and put me in back of the military vehicle, next to Bryce.
“Tell me what’s going on!”
“That’s classified information for my rank,” Shawn said. “You’ll have to ask the sergeant.” He nodded toward Jason, who was climbing into the driver’s seat.
“Mass grave!” Jason shouted out into the rear-view mirror. “You two were lucky as fuck!”
Outside of Muldoon is a truck stop with a U-Haul center and a massive, warehouse-sized engine shop.
This was the first recognizable landmark I saw when Jason approached the highway. I expected him to pass it by, but he turned into the truck stop and pulled right into the warehouse.
Inside were countless U-Haul trucks, row after row of them. They’d all been stripped of their engines and were in various states of disassembly. Jason came to a stop beside one van without wheels, its axles resting on the concrete floor. Two of the men pulled Bryce from his seat, shoved him into the back of the U-Haul, slammed its door down, and locked it shut.
“Shawn.” I tried to sound calm and reasonable, but I had no idea why we were here or what was happening. “Please tell me what’s going on.” I steadied my breath. “Just tell me what you’re doing.”
Shawn kept quiet. No one else said a word.
Now Jason maneuvered the military vehicle around scattered hydraulic jacks and made his way toward the opposite end of the warehouse. He stopped beside another U-Haul truck, this one with its entire front end missing.
Jason himself jerked me from my seat. He shoved me into the back of the U-Haul.
“Shawn!” I screamed out. “What’s going on? Tell me!”
I could see my husband’s profile in the military vehicle’s passenger seat. He didn’t even turn to look at me.
Jason reached up and grabbed the cord dangling from the U-Haul’s sliding door.
“You just hang tight,” he said with a terrifying grin. “We’ll let you know, Ma’am!”
Then he slammed the door shut. I heard him lock it.
Once again I was in a dark space, this time completely alone.
I can’t say for sure how long I was locked inside the back of the van, but it must have been for around five days.
At what felt like twenty-four hour intervals, two men in combat gear, kids really, opened the U-Haul’s door. One always kept his rifle aimed at my chest. The other would set vacuum-packed military rations and a gallon of water on the cargo space’s floor. Then they slammed the door back down and locked it. They must have been given orders not to speak to me, because I couldn’t ever get either of them to say a word.
Sitting there in the dark, mostly I thought about Morgan. I’d promised her that I’d come right back to the hayloft, but I’d never returned. I wondered if she was still waiting there. I wondered if someone had found her. I tried not to think about what Jason had said about a “mass grave” and what the workers who had locked us into the coffin had said about burying other people who’d cried out from inside. A couple of times I tried calling out to Bryce as loud as I could, but I never heard any response.
I started fantasizing that the next time someone opened the cargo door, it would be Ian. But of course it never was.
The fifth time the door rolled up, not only was it not Ian, and not only was there no food, it was Jason.
“We’re official!” He ducked into the cargo space and flashed me a bright grin. He was in the same combat gear as before. “We got warrants now! And they sure do want to talk to you.”
He grabbed me by the handcuffs and painfully threw me into the military vehicle he’d been driving before. Bryce was in the back seat. He was relieved to see me; he tried to give me an embrace, but his handcuffs got in the way. He eyed the armed squad warily—the same men as before—and settled for putting his hand on my knee and squeezing it.
Shawn sat stone-still in the front seat. He didn’t even turn around to look at me.
Downtown Muldoon was completely deserted.
When Jason drove through on the highway, there were cars parked everywhere, but all of them had been abandoned. I didn’t see a soul. Another military vehicle passed going in the opposite direction, but that was it. The carnival rides, still standing at the fairgrounds, were darkly motionless. The diner was closed; the supermarket was closed; the post office had a notice posted on its door, but I couldn’t see what it said. Some of the shops still had their “open” signs up, but they were obviously totally empty. Only the pharmacy’s lights were on, and some kind of electronic steel door had been put up at its entrance.
One of the men raised his rifle as we approached the Burger Shack.
“Sergeant, we got something.”
“I see it.” Jason slowed. “Good fucking eyes, Corporal!”
Shawn gestured at me and Bryce. “Let’s just get these two to the center,” he said to Jason. “We don’t have enough room. Let’s skip this one.”
Jason shook his head. “We won’t need room.”
He pulled into the Burger Shack drive-through lane. An empty car was parked at the order kiosk.
Even after being locked inside a coffin and then a U-Haul, I was feeling constricted in the handcuffs. I worried if something happened I wouldn’t be able to move or defend myself. I glanced at Bryce, but he shook his head and shrugged helplessly.
One of the men pointed his gun through the window at the parked car. “Right there.”
I couldn’t tell what they were looking at. Then I noticed that the car was moving, very slightly.
It was rocking back and forth.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” another of rangers whispered, disgusted. “They’re in there all right.”
Two of the men stayed to guard me and Bryce while the rest got out of the vehicle. Jason, Shawn, and another ranger, the corporal, approached the car. I wasn’t sure what I was about to see, but something told me I’d regret watching it.
The corporal positioned himself at one side of the car, and Jason the other.
Jason gave a silent count. Then they whipped open one door each.
Jason dragged a girl from the car by her ankle, and the corporal dragged out another person, a guy, by the collar.
“Wait! Wait!” the guy shouted, covering his head with his arms. “We were just sleeping!”
I recognized him. I’d gone to high school with him. He was a couple of years ahead of me. His name was Patrick something. He’d been in the band, he played something like the trombone, and now he stocked shelves at the supermarket. He was wearing a green t-shirt and his pants were unbuttoned.
“Like hell you were sleeping,” Jason said.
Jason struggled with the girl. She was pulling her skirt down from around her waist and trying to stand up. He put his knee on her chest, pinning her to the pavement. She slapped at his knee, flinging her bleached hair, but otherwise she was silent.
“Get off her!” Patrick yelled, his voice cracking. He struggled as the corporal pinned him against the car’s trunk.
Then the corporal took something that looked like a home pregnancy test from his flak jacket and jabbed it into Patrick’s lower abdomen.
Patrick screamed out in what looked like intense pain, and collapsed onto the ground.
Jason held back the girl’s hands and jabbed a similar white plastic applicator into her stomach, just above her pubic bone. She writhed in agony, but still without making a sound.
“What’s yours?” Jason stood, shaking his applicator. “Stage one? Bet it’s stage one.”
I had no idea what just happened or what Jason was talking about. The whole time Shawn kept quiet. He just pointed his gun back and forth between Patrick and the girl.
The corporal looked closely at his applicator. “Stage one!” He smiled. “Bingo! What’s yours? Stage two, I bet. Look at her. Gotta be stage two.”
“Hold on, it’s coming.” Jason shook his applicator and looked at it again. “Stage two!” He yelled. “Corporal, we got ourselves a couple of officially confirmed sickos!”
Jason held up his white plastic applicator and tapped it against the corporal’s like they were clinking glasses for a toast.
“We’re already almost out of these.” The corporal tossed his applicator into the bushes beside the Burger Shack.
“Next shipment’s supposed to be in soon.” Jason shrugged. “Not like we really need these things anyway. Waste of time, if you ask me. I mean, big fucking surprise these two are sick, right?”
He drew a handgun.
“Are you ready?”
Patrick was trying to stand, clutching his abdomen. They girl was still writhing on the ground.
The corporal drew his own handgun. “Ready.” He took a deep breath.
Jason nodded. He placed his gun against the girl’s head. The corporal placed his against Patrick’s.
They both immediately fired, almost exactly at the same time.
Patrick collapsed. The girl shuddered, then went still.
“What the fuck!” I yelled out, mindlessly banging my cuffed hands against the seat in front of me. “What the fuck are you doing?” I was suddenly sobbing. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen.
I’d never thought that even Jason could do anything like this. Patrick and the girl lay dead in gathering pools of blood at the rangers’ feet.
“Your turn, this time,” Jason said to the corporal. “Bag ’em and bury ’em.”
The corporal stayed behind with a pair of body bags. Jason drove out of town, following the highway to the west and toward the mountains.
I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like I was going to break in half. I’d been through more than I could handle. Bryce was silent, riding with his head pressed against the window. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. It looked like he’d kind of shut down. Shawn sat beside Jason with his gaze fixed forward. If it weren’t for his combat helmet it would have looked like he was just working some desk job.
“Holy Fuck.” Jason was driving us past a dairy farm in the middle of a broad hay field, and now he craned his neck to look out the window.
I kept wondering where Ian was. I knew he wouldn’t put up with any of this new Home Guard ranger cowboy shit, and I was worried about what they’d done with him.
There were only four men now that the corporal had stayed behind. I decided that if I got another chance, I’d run.
Jason pulled to the side of the road.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I do believe we have a clusterfuck.”
“Clusterfuck? Where?” One of the rangers, the youngest of them, peered out the window. “I haven’t seen one yet. Where is it?”
“Out past that tree, Private. Right there.” Jason brought the vehicle to a stop. “See it?”
There was a low mass of . . . something in the field just beyond the dairy barn, partially obscured by an idle swather.
Jason pulled the military vehicle into the farm. As we drove through the field, moving closer, I could see that the mass was actually thirty or forty people. They had gathered in a tight circle. Most of them were sitting or lying in the dirt, almost as if they were having a group picnic.
“Holy fuck.” Shawn opened the door as Jason brought the vehicle to a stop.
But it was no picnic. The people in the field—all thirty or forty of them—were having sex. It was some kind of orgy. Many of them were completely naked; some of the men’s pants were around their ankles; some of the women had two guys between their legs. When Jason cut the engine, I could hear a chorus of quivering moans. Everyone was filthy, covered in dust and dry alfalfa. I’d never, ever seen anything like it.
“Watch this,” Jason said.
He gave the horn a long honk. It was deafening. He flicked the siren on and off, which was even louder.
No one in the field stopped having sex. Not one of them even paused or looked up. If anything, the moaning grew more intense. It was like they were all lost in a trance of carnal insatiability.
“Why do they do that?” asked the younger private. “Why don’t they run?”
“Because they’re fuckin’ sickos,” Jason said. “Just look at them. Shameless.”
“But we only have like three test kits left.”
Jason laughed. He banged on the horn again. None of the people in the field responded.
“There’s your test. Every fuckin’ one of them is stage three. I guarantee it.” Jason looked into the rear view mirror. “Anyone disagree with that assessment?”
Shawn said, “Fuck protocol.” He shouldered his rifle.
All the rangers got out of the vehicle and approached the massive orgy, guns raised, making their way around the idle swather.
“Hold up,” Jason said. “Don’t waste your ammo.”
He climbed into the swather.
“Keys are here!” He called out, jangling a set of ignition keys out the door.
“Oh shit.” The private grinned.
A swather is basically a giant lawn mower that cuts a twenty-foot-wide swath of hay and spits it out the back into a neat row. They’re hard to maneuver, and Jason wasn’t nearly as good a driver as my dad was. He started the engine and struggled to steer the swather toward the orgy that was playing out in the field. The other Home Guard rangers chuckled and clapped, including Shawn, goading Jason on.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t let it happen. I stumbled out of the military vehicle and ran awkwardly in my handcuffs toward the swather.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Jason! Stop!”
The men laughed at me. There was nothing I could do. I was a small woman in handcuffs, and Jason was driving a giant hydraulic machine with churning blades.
“Get the fuck back, Ashley!” Shawn yelled.
I collapsed in the field.
Jason maneuvered around me, then steered directly toward the mass of people still obliviously fucking on the ground. Finally a few of the people, one guy and two women, got up and ran.
But the rangers shot them. They twisted to the ground like hunted geese, then the rangers shot them each again in the head.
Jason drove directly into the cluster of bodies who still hadn’t run. There was a nightmarish sound of chopped flesh and the sudden scent of exposed bowels as the swather churned into the cluster of human beings. Most of the people didn’t even stop having sex until the moment before they died. The swather deposited a trail of chopped limbs and viscera in its wake.
Shawn was smiling and nodding while the two other privates cheered triumphantly and slapped hands. Then the younger private suddenly threw up. The others laughed at him, including Shawn.
This was too much.
I’m sure I must have known at least some of these people before they’d contracted whatever hellishly bizarre plague was spreading through Muldoon.
I vomited. I stood and ran.
I sprinted as fast as I could through the stubble wearing handcuffs, then I tripped over a tangle of dried alfalfa, pitched forward, and fell. I got up and ran again. I was heading for the dairy barn, but it was at least a hundred yards away. I waited for a bullet to tear into my back. Any second now I would feel lead ripping through my flesh, I was sure of it.
Instead someone pulled me down by the hair.
It was one of the privates. He started dragging me back to the military vehicle, still clutching my hair. I thought he would rip it out by the roots in a clump. I grasped for his wrists to hold up my weight as he dragged me.
“Don’t shoot her!” Shawn yelled. “I wish like hell we could, but they’re wanted for questioning!”
“I know, I know,” said the private, still dragging me.
Jason jogged over, waving his hand at the private. “Hey man, hold up. Hold up.”
The private let go of my hair and Jason helped me stand. The private obediently walked ahead.
Jason put his arm around me.
“I’m watching out for you, Ash,” he whispered. “Don’t forget that. I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you. We’ll just get you all checked out, make sure you’re clean. I know you been through a hell of a lot. But I’m here for you. I can help you take the edge off.” As he guided me toward the military vehicle, he pressed a couple of round pills into my palm. “These’ll make you feel better. Remember, Ash, I’m here to help you take the edge off, in any way you want.” He squeezed my shoulders.
He didn’t release his firm grip as he lead me all the way back to the vehicle.
I didn’t think I could be any more sickened by Jason after what he’d just done with the swather, but I was. I was so distraught and angry, I thought I’d collapse again. I didn’t really understand exactly what he meant by take the edge off, but I got the gist. I knew he’d do anything he wanted to me, given the chance. I held on to the pills he gave me only to avoid pissing him off. I would have rather died than be held captive by Jason Gibbs, but that was exactly what was happening.
Gunshots rang out. A burst of rapid fire.
The rangers lifted their weapons, startled. I ducked down.
I thought someone was shooting at us, but when I glanced up I saw a man approaching us from a dark military SUV. He was dressed in a black version of the combat uniforms the rangers were wearing, shooting not at us but into the air.
“Stop,” he called out, firing his rifle again.
The rangers lowered their weapons.
“What is it?” Jason yelled back.
“What is it, sir,” the man barked as he approached.
“What is it, sir,” Jason mumbled.
“I’m taking these two off your hands.”
It was only now that I realized the man approaching was Ian.
I didn’t know whether to cry out in relief at seeing him or to be terrified that he was one of them.
Ian held out a wad of documents in his free hand. “I’ve got clearance papers,” he said. “They’ve been cleared.”
Jason shook his head in frustrated disbelief. “But we’re taking them in! They’re wanted for questioning!”
“Not any more they’re not.”
Ian gently put his hand on my shoulder and nodded at Bryce.
“Get in the car. Right now.”
Bryce and I both hurried toward the SUV.
Behind me, I heard Ian yell out at Shawn. “How dare you!”
“Fuck you, Ian,” Shawn called back.
By then Bryce and I had climbed into Ian’s SUV. Ian jumped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. He handed me a set of handcuff keys and started the ignition.
“What’s going on?” I was sobbing. “Tell me what’s going on. I need somebody to tell me what’s going on.”
Ian sped through the field toward the highway. “They think you’ve been harboring infected fugitives,” he said.
I looked back. Jason, Shawn, and the other rangers were still milling around the mass of tangled limbs. They weren’t following us.
We reached the highway. I was still too terrified to fully let my guard down, but finally I let out a huge sob of relief.
Ian put his hand on my shoulder. I pressed my cheek against it.
“I know what happened to you guys,” Ian said quietly, glancing also at Bryce in the back seat. “I’m so sorry, Ash.” He squeezed my shoulder, very softly. “I can’t even begin to imagine.”
Bryce said, “Thank you.” It sounded like he was trying not to cry too. “Jesus, buddy,” he said to Ian. “Thank you.”
I could barely unlock the handcuffs because my fingers were trembling so bad. I passed the keys back to Bryce.
I realized I was still clutching the pills Jason had given me. I stared at them dumbly.
Ian grabbed them from my palm, rolled down the window, and threw them outside.
“Jason gave those to you?”
“Jesus Christ.” Ian shook his head, disgusted. “He’s a little piece of shit.”
“What were they?”
“Sedatives, tranquilizers. Who knows? He’s got access to the pharmacy and he already thinks he’s some kind of drug kingpin.”
So Jason had been planning to drug me and force himself on me. I can’t even imagine what someone like him would have done to me if he’d had me locked up in some jail cell.
“Thank you, Ian,” I said. “Fucking thank you so much.”
“You’re okay,” he said. “You’re safe. For now. I was able to pull some strings and get your arrest warrants cleared. But we’re going to have to be careful.”
I tried to calm down. I still couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. All I could think about was wanting Ian to just pull over and hold me in his arms while I cried. I knew I shouldn’t want that, it was wrong, but I couldn’t help it. I took a deep breath and tried to get myself under control. We were passing back into town. Ian slowed to avoid the empty, abandoned cars that were strewn all over the roadside.
“What’s happening?” I asked. “They took you away, Ian. And now you’re . . . What are you? What’s going on?”
Ian drew a deep breath, gave me a look of what I tried not to interpret as despair, then stared at the road. “Everything’s falling to pieces,” he said. “That’s what’s happening.” He shook his head. “We’re inside what’s now an officially designated quarantine zone. All of Muldoon and the surrounding areas. About forty miles across. They’ve got the National Guard patrolling the borders. I swear to God the perimeter looks like Iraq. Hesco barriers, concertina wire, the whole thing. And I guess we’re not the only zone. There’s supposed to be four more throughout the west, all in remote, rural areas, like us.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe how fast they set this thing up since the pathogen broke out. I guess no one really understands how to cure it, or how it works, except that it’s a kind of venereal disease and somehow it drives people mad with carnal desire. It’s basically an STD that acts as an aphrodisiac.”
Ian glanced at me. I couldn’t believe it, but he blushed a little. He cleared his throat.
“Officially,” he said, “the federal government’s supposed to lift the quarantines when everyone living inside tests negative for a full twelve months. The pathogen’s supposed to be contained inside the zones. But, unofficially, word is they’re dumping infected people in from the outside. And I’ve sure seen a lot of infected people around who I don’t know. Can’t all be outsiders stuck here from the fair.”
I couldn’t really believe that everything had changed so fast just because an aggressive disease was spreading. I was finding it hard to comprehend that I wasn’t still living in the same old Muldoon, and that everything about our lives had changed, probably forever.
“What happened when they took you away?” I looked at Ian’s black combat uniform warily. He still hadn’t told me everything. “What are you now, exactly . . . ?”
“Home Guard.” He scoffed. “Either you join, or you get thrown into detention. Indefinitely. That’s the deal. It’s basically a paramilitary force that’s been granted the rule of martial law over the entire quarantine zone. They recruit a lot people from the inside, because, well, how many volunteers are you going to get from the outside to go into a quarantine zone? They take you to this center they have set up west of town, give you some bullshit day-long crash training course, assign you a rank, and off you go. Because of my experience they cooked up a medical lieutenant rank for me. Everybody else keeps busy doing the rounds patrolling residences and taking daily urine tests, then separating out the infected from the uninfected. We were supposed to bring anyone who tested positive to the center, where they were going to keep them all in that Wal-Mart warehouse over there. But now it looks like all the squads are pretty much just ‘expiring’ positives on the spot.” Ian looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear at what he was about to tell me. “They’re getting away with killing people because there’s a legal loophole. Anyone who tests positive, technically, is already dead.”
I didn’t understand. “What do you mean? How is that possible? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Do you remember Chris Trevino? That new doctor kid?”
I vaguely remembered a young doctor who’d started at the hospital just about the time Shawn was finishing up his physical therapy. But I didn’t know what he had to do with anything.
“Yeah, I remember him. I guess so. Why?”
Ian had been driving toward my parents’ house, but now he turned off the unpaved road that lead around to the back side of their property.
“Well, you’ll meet him soon,” Ian said. “Chris’ll be able to explain everything better than I ever could. He’s a good guy. Young, a little high-strung, but a good enough guy. We’ve been helping each other out. He sort of defected from the hospital when the Home Guard took it over. After Bob Hershel died, he asked me if I knew where he could do an autopsy without anyone finding out about it. I found him a place.”
I thought about Ian shooting Mr. Hershel that night. It already seemed like so long ago when Morgan had fallen into her coma. The last I’d seen of her, she’d been hidden away in my dad’s hayloft.
“And Morgan?” I asked. I was terrified that she wouldn’t have known what to do when neither Bryce nor me had come back to the loft. What if she’d been caught by the Home Guard?
“Morgan’s . . . safe,” Ian said.
But he didn’t say anything further, and I could tell he was holding something back that he didn’t want to tell me.
Ian pulled up toward the ramshackle barn that had stood precariously by the river for as long I could remember. It was on the Hershel property, across the river from my parents’ ranch. I got out to open the barn doors, and Ian parked the SUV inside, hiding it from view.
“We’ll leave it here in case anyone tries to track it,” Ian explained. He locked the doors.
Bryce and I followed Ian toward the low concrete dam that spanned the river from bank to bank. As kids, my sister and I used to take our shoes off and cross by walking through the ankle-deep water that spilled over the dam’s edge, but now Bryce and I just followed Ian’s lead and sloshed through in our shoes, too tired and shaken to care about not getting our feet wet. I had no idea where Ian was taking us. We were more than a quarter mile from my parents’ house.
My dad used to raise grain before I was born, and there was still an old corrugated tin granary left over on the flats along the river, more or less hidden behind the bluff. I hadn’t even seen it for years. My dad used to make me and Danielle swear we wouldn’t play inside the tall, barn-like structure that housed the old grain elevator. It was connected to a row of six squat silos, long since empty. Every surface of the granary was corrugated tin, and by now all of the tin had rusted to a dull orange. Ian walked through the weeds toward the granary’s door.
“I’ll take you to the house in just sec,” he said. “I just need to check in on Chris real quick.”
I looked around at the old rusting structure. An arrow-shaped weather vane creaked at the rooftop.
“Does my dad know you’re using this place?”
It made me a little nervous that Ian was hiding bodies from the Home Guard on my parents’ property.
“I told him I needed to use it,” he answered. “I also told him I couldn’t tell him why. He agreed. He swore he wouldn’t tell a soul about anything going on down here. I know he won’t.”
Ian was right. I knew that if my dad swore not to say anything to anyone, he wouldn’t. He could keep a secret, even from my mom. Once he’d taken me on a cross-country horseback trip into the mountains way beyond town, and passing through a gully we stumbled into an abandoned village of ancient native American cliff dwellings. We spent the afternoon walking up and down the stone steps and exploring the network of rooms carved into the rock. We even found petrified corncobs in one. He told me he didn’t think anyone knew that the native American group who had built them had ever migrated so far north, and he didn’t want backpackers ruining the place. He made me swear to keep it a secret, and he never, ever said a word about it later, not even to me.
“What about my mom?” I asked Ian. I knew she wouldn’t be happy about him using the granary. “Does she know you’re using it?”
Ian shook his head. “No, just your dad.” He opened the granary door. It creaked in its wire hinges. “You don’t have to come in if you don’t want to. You’ve seen a hell of lot today. I wouldn’t blame you.”
I was feeling so numb I just followed Ian inside. Bryce came in too, I think mostly so he wouldn’t have to stay outside alone.
The interior was dark, shot through by points of light coming in through tiny holes rusted into the tin walls. Everything was covered by decades-old grain dust.
“Hey, Chris!” Ian called out. “It’s me. I have company.” His voice echoed strangely through the massive tin building.
As my eyes adjusted once again to a dark space, this one far more cavernous than the last, I recognized the doctor who was sitting at a makeshift desk in the far corner. The desk was surrounded by medical supplies from boxes of antibiotics to a battery-powered defibrillator to empty I.V. bags hanging on nails. There was even an old heart monitor, though, as it appeared, it was without a power supply. Ian had obviously been busy bringing Doctor Trevino more than just cadavers to study.
The doctor stood as we walked in. He was even younger than I’d remembered, not much older than I was, small and thin, and he was waving smoke from the air.
He was holding a joint, not entirely guiltily.
“Hey,” he said.
“This is Doctor Trevino.” Ian eyed the joint warily. “Chris,” he said disapprovingly. “What is this? Really?”
“Hey man, when you come to a bum-fuck town in the middle of nowhere for a one-year residency and end up stuck in a quarantine zone, probably for life, you want to allow yourself a joint every now and then. That’s my medical advice.” He shook my hand, then Bryce’s. “Hi, how are you.”
Ian waved away the smoke. “Ashley wanted to know why the Home Guard can shoot the sick at will,” Ian said. “I told her you could explain it better than me.”
“Because they’re not sick.” He shrugged. “They’re dead.”
“Go easy,” Ian whispered. “They’ve been through a lot. Remember? I told you what happened?”
“Oh shit! I’m so sorry!” Chris covered his mouth. “You guys where in the . . . buried . . . thing. Right. Shit. I’m so sorry.” He touched each of our shoulders apologetically and stepped back. “Well, you’re alive. So congratulations for that. That’s better than the TGV-positives can say, because, like I said, they’re not. They’re dead.”
“Okay,” Bryce said. He’d been in a state of shock for the last hour or so, and now he was losing his patience. “You’ll have to explain this. I’m not a doctor, but what the fuck do you mean dead? Like fucking zombies or something? Bullshit.”
“No, not like zombies.” Chris sat down at his makeshift desk. “They’re totally conscious. They don’t feel any different, not at first anyway.”
He leaned back and dragged from his joint, then he released the smoke, eyeing us.
“Okay, so,” he said. “Here’s the deal. Have you ever heard of Toxoplasmosis? The disease that’s caused by Toxoplasma Gondii? It’s a parasite that reproduces inside cat intestines and causes infected mice to be sexually attracted to cats, making it easier for cats to eat them. It’s real. I’m serious. Look it up. It even causes higher rates of risk-taking behavior and suicide when it gets inside humans. Well, as far as we know, the plague pathogen is a mutation of Toxoplasma Gondii, one that’s evolved to use humans as hosts instead of mice and cats. They think a strain got into a bunch of chickens in one of those giant factory farms—probably from cat shit in the chicken feed. That’s where it mutated, and then somebody somewhere must have eaten some undercooked chicken, and then it mutated again and really took off in the human population. Toxoplasma Gondii Five. TGV. This strain’s entirely sexually transmitted. In fact, in women and men both, the parasite is only released through orgasm. After sleeping with someone who’s infected, people get flu-like symptoms and slip into a coma. Anywhere from a few hours to a few days later, they die.”
Chris took one last drag from his joint then stubbed it out in an ashtray made from the bottom of soda can.
“This is where it gets weird,” he said. “Death triggers the parasite to take control of the amygdalae—they’re in the limbic system, where all the most basic, primitive functions are located. The infected person wakes up, feeling healthy, and with all of the brain’s original personality and memory centers intact. They’re basically normal, but with two exceptions. Number one, they’re dead. Number two, just like in mice where they first evolved, the host’s libido is stimulated. That’s because the parasite has begun to lay its microscopic eggs in the tissues of the host’s reproductive organs. We don’t really understand how, but it makes infected humans do virtually anything to do the wild thing. To get it on. The humpty dumpty. Know what I’m saying, people? There’s evidence that a pheromone gets released along with the eggs, which attracts even uninfected people to the host. This is stage one, and lasts no more than about five days. In stage two, things go downhill, while the sex drive gets even stronger. People start to lose verbal skills and go numb at the fingers and toes. This is because the parasite’s larvae feeds on the outer brain matter. It slowly begins to eat everything but the amygdalae. Meanwhile, the colony lays millions more eggs in the host’s reproductive organs.”
Chris stood and lead us over to the opposite side of the dusty grain elevator engine.
“Have a look at this.”
A pair of bodies, each covered in a thick sheet, lay side by side on an old door supported by a pair of sawhorses.
Ian said, “You don’t have to see this if you don’t want to.”
But by now, I didn’t care what I saw. I was feeling not just emotionally drained, but emotionally blank. I knew right now I could see anything without being affected by it. And I was also curious. Learning about the disease was helping me focus my thoughts, and, surprisingly, even calming me down a little.
“I’m okay,” I said.
But Bryce had had enough.
“Sorry, I think I need to catch my breath,” he said, and he stepped outside.
Chris pushed back the sheet to partially expose one of the bodies.
I’d thought I could handle this, but I gagged when I saw what was lying on the table.
Chris had only revealed the body’s torso and pelvic area. The face was still covered, but I could tell right away that it was Mr. Hershel. He had been cut into and opened up from his neck all the way down to his pelvis. I hadn’t ever seen human organs on display like that. The scent of wet offal rose from the cavity like heat. But that wasn’t the worst part. The penis was still erect, as stiff as the rest of the body. The testicles had blackened and swollen even further.
“Oh my God.” I took a step back.
Chris uncapped a scalpel from his breast pocket.
“Stage three is bad,” he said. “The host body starts to decay, movement becomes awkward, personality and memory fades, and people start to get, well, kinda rapey. Men generally maintain a perpetual erection. It’s the last chance for the parasite to pass its eggs to a new host, so the reproduction impulse goes into overdrive. At this point, in the case of male hosts,” Chris nodded at Mr. Hershel’s testicles, “the parasite has replaced all of the semen with its own eggs, suspended in a kind of honey—a little like bees’ honey—which the new larvae will feed on after hatching in the new host.”
Chris carefully positioned the scalpel over one of Mr. Hershel’s bloated testicles. He carefully punctured the skin. Immediately, a viscous, yellow substance oozed from the puncture.
He held a droplet on the tip of the scalpel blade, displaying it as well as possible in the granary’s dim light.
“If you were to taste it, it would taste a lot like honey,” he said, then he laughed. “Not that I recommend tasting it.”
Right away I thought about Bryce coming in my mouth, and how I’d spit out his semen as an afterthought. But was I still at risk? What if Bryce was infected? What if I’d felt so attracted to him because he’d been releasing the pheromones Chris mentioned? After all, who, in a normal state of mind, would do anything so strange as to go down on someone inside a buried coffin?
“How contagious is it?” I asked. “I mean, if you did taste it, say, would you get infected?”
“Probably not.” Chris shrugged casually. “Not as far as we know, anyway. The infection can only be passed through the genitalia. Only through vaginal sex. So, kids, always use protection!”
He gave me and Ian an ironic thumbs up.
“Otherwise, you’ll end up like poor Mr. Hershel here.” Chris nodded at Mr. Hershel’s motionless body as he pulled the sheet back over it. “Or, even worse,” he added, “like this guy who you two found at the high school.” He slapped a hand down on what must have been the knee of the other covered body. “Poor guy cut off his own twizzler when he couldn’t stop thinking about forcing himself on cheerleaders.” He winced. “Didn’t help him any though. He finally expired and fell through that window above the showers. When the parasite’s life cycle completes, the colony dies, and the host expires too. But the only way to stop the process before a host’s natural expiration is to destroy the amygdalae. That’s why the Home Guard doesn’t have any qualms about shooting TGV positives in the head. They could keep them isolated until they expire naturally, but that’s too costly, and, according to them, too risky. An ice pick in the ear would be neater, but the rangers like their guns. That’s why they get away with it, though. Because TGV positives are technically already dead.”
Setting aside Chris’s callousness, I was trying my best to understand.
“But how are they dead?” I asked. “I mean, I get that they’ve technically died, and that the parasite takes over the brain. But if a person is awake, and has the same personality, and memories, and thoughts, how is that any different than being alive? Especially in the first stages.”
Chris shrugged. “It’s not any different. Not really. That’s why I defected from the hospital when the Home Guard took it over. That’s why I’m stuck hiding out in this fucking granary. I don’t see how it’s okay to go around whacking innocent people SS-style. Even if they are dead.”
Now that Chris had finished his explanation, Ian touched my arm solemnly.
“Ash, I have to show you something,” he whispered. “I didn’t think you’d be ready for this, not after everything you’ve been through today, but now I’m thinking maybe you are.”
I braced myself. I wasn’t actually so sure that I was ready for anything else today.
Ian reached into his pocket and took out a white plastic applicator, just like the ones the Home Guard used to test for infection.
“I know what that is,” I said. “I watched Jason using one.”
“Unfortunately, this was our only one,” Ian explained. “They’re hard to come by. They work by taking a urine sample.”
He pressed a button, and a three-inch needle extended from the applicator with a click.
“They’re Insta-Reads,” he said. “Which means they’re designed to take a quick sample from the bladder by piercing the abdomen, in cases when someone refuses to give urine. But they work just as well by peeing on the needle. You don’t actually have to stab anyone.”
He clicked the button again, and the needle withdrew.
“This one is Morgan’s.”
Ian handed me the applicator. He and Chris both waited silently for me to read it.
Just like a pregnancy test, there were simple instructions. One blue line meant “Stage 1 TGV.” Two blues lines meant “Stage 2 TGV.” Three blue lines meant “Stage 3 TGV.”
Morgan’s test had two blue lines. Stage 2 TGV.
I had to have known, on some level, listening to Chris’s explanation about how the pathogen worked, that Morgan was infected. She’d been sleeping with Mr. Hershel for weeks even before he’d raped her. She’d gotten sick, and I’d watched her stop breathing and lie still without a heartbeat for at least fifteen minutes before waking back up. But I hadn’t really let myself accept it until now, seeing the brute fact of two blue lines on the applicator. And I hadn’t expected her to have reached the second stage so soon.
“Sometimes it progresses pretty quickly,” Chris said, condoling me.
I looked back and the granary door. “She’s here, isn’t she? Somewhere?”
“I’ll take you to her now,” Ian said.
I followed Ian and Chris outside.
Bryce was sitting beside the granary, his back against the corrugated tin wall. He stood. I handed him the applicator.
He read it. He nodded slowly.
Chris lit a cigarette, a Camel Light, as he led us all toward the second of the six round silos. He offered the cigarette to me, and after a moment I accepted it, taking a long, trembling drag before handing it back over.
Ian took a few cautious steps toward the long row of silos, and somberly motioned for us to follow him.
He whispered, “Before we go in, you should know that Chris has been trying to help Morgan. He’s been giving her a cocktail of antibiotics.”
“It’s still early,” Chris broke in. “So we really don’t know how well it works. But, for now, it seems to have some effect on slowing the progression of the disease.”
This was good news. I needed good news. I had a little hope for Morgan. Maybe if there was a way to slow the disease, there was a way to cure it completely.
“But the cocktail’s a combination of some pretty powerful antibiotics,” Ian said. “It has some side effects. Morgan’s gotten pretty weak. Chris says it’ll probably get worse before it gets better. She’s also not sleeping because of the hallucinatory nightmares the antibiotics have been causing. She’s exhausted. And the kicker is we’re already running low on the antibiotics Chris needs to make the cocktail. Problem is, even as a medical officer I don’t have clearance at the pharmacy. They keep it pretty closely guarded. Jason is one of the only rangers in the Home Guard with an access card because the pharmacy falls in his squad’s residential patrol zone. And he’s not exactly going to do me any favors, not after today. I can’t even order him to give it over because I don’t outrank him in that way. And if I ever tried to just take it from him, his squad would back him up.” Ian gave me a stern look. “Look, Ash. I’m telling you all this so you know why Morgan’s in the state she’s in. But I don’t want you to get your hopes up. We’re doing all we can, there’s just not much more we can do for her. Our hands are pretty tied.”
“I understand,” I said. “Just let me see her.”
Ian took a key from his pocket and stepped toward the silo door. I hadn’t realized it was locked.
“You locked her in?”
“It wasn’t our idea,” Ian said. “She made us promise to lock her in. She was terrified of what she’d do as the disease progressed. She was worried she would leave.”
Ian pushed the door open.
There she was.
Morgan was sitting on the concrete floor beside a little kerosene lantern, unlit.
She smiled at me sadly. She raised her hand to motion for me to sit beside her, but she was obviously weak. She struggled to hold her arms out to me.
I sat beside her and hugged her for a long time.
“What the hell, kid?” I said, holding back my tears. “We’re going to get you better.”
Morgan shrugged and nodded without much hope. She wasn’t saying anything.
She couldn’t speak.
I knew that she was going to be in a bad state, but I hadn’t fully prepared myself for her to have completely lost the ability to talk to me.
She grabbed my shoulder, pointed toward the ground, and gave me a sad, terrified look. Then she hugged me again.
“I told her what happened to you the other day,” Ian said. “In the coffin.”
I understood. I hugged Morgan back. “Thanks, kid.” I said. “I’m okay now.”
Morgan tried to tell me something else. She pointed at me and Bryce. When she couldn’t express herself by pointing, she tried to speak, but only hollow gibberish came out of her mouth. It was like her lips were numb, and her jaw seemed stiff. She couldn’t form words or sounds at all. She started to cry in frustration.
“We’ll get you something to write with,” I said.
Morgan gave me yet another look of despair.
Ian said, “Writing’s not so easy for her either. We tried that. Her fingers are getting pretty numb.”
Morgan turned away and slammed her hand against the tin wall. The loud bang resonated in the silo’s confined space.
She started to cry miserably, still without making any sound. I moved closer to her and held her while she cried. She started to rock herself back and forth, and I let myself rock with her.
Then, slowly, Morgan started to breathe more deeply.
She turned her head so her lips were against my ear, and I could feel the warmth of her suddenly tense inhalations. She moved her leg just a little over mine. Then she pressed her pubic bone into my hip, rotating her pelvis. She let out a soft little moan of something close to pleasure. It was the first fully-formed sound I’d heard her make. Then she started grinding even harder into my hip. She gently bit my ear lobe, breathing even more deeply and moaning again.
She was trying to get off on me.
“Morgan,” I said. I pushed her away as gently as I could.
Ian stepped over and helped me up, pushing Morgan back as he separated us.
As if waking from a trance, Morgan suddenly realized what she’d been doing. She looked mortified. Suddenly she slammed the tin wall again, curled up into a little ball with her head between her knees, and started sobbing.
Ian pulled me farther away from her.
“She can’t help it,” he reminded me.
Morgan looked up. She waved us away, tears spilling from her eyes, then made a locking motion at Ian, reminding him to make sure to lock her inside.
We all stepped out.
There was nothing else I could do.
It was getting late. The sun was setting over the mountains. I felt completely hopeless. For a moment, I didn’t see the point of going on living. What were we all going to do?
Ian quietly closed the door and locked the padlock.
“That’s the thing about this disease,” he said. “It takes any outpouring of emotion, even sorrow, and turns it into sexual attraction. Not just love and affection, like normal, but anger, gratitude, humor—everything. It all comes out as lust.”
Bryce and Chris walked on ahead. I wasn’t sure, but I think Chris may have been hooking Bryce up with some weed in the middle of all this.
“We better get going,” Ian said. “I registered your official residence at your parents’ house, so you’ll be able to stay there. It falls in the residential patrol zone that Jason’s squad has, though. I couldn’t do anything about that. They usually arrive at the house around noon. Your mom’s even been making them lunch. But, really, they could come at any time. If you’re not there, they’ll put your warrant back out, and I won’t be able to stop them. Morgan, obviously, has to stay here.”
I nodded. “We better get going then,” I said. “But first tell me something.”
Ian folded his arms against the evening chill, waiting for me to speak. Way off in the distance, the Rockies were growing darker. The first stars were appearing in the sky.
“I’ve just had this feeling,” I said. “I’m sorry to ask. I shouldn’t. I know. But did anything ever happen between you and Morgan? Ever?”
Ian sighed. For a moment he looked away.
“That night at the bar,” he began, “after you and Bryce left, we went off looking for you together. I’ll be honest and tell you that Morgan came on to me. She tried to kiss me, but that was it. She was pretty drunk. I stopped it. Nothing else happened.” He shrugged. “I swear, that was it.”
I nodded, relieved. I knew he was telling the truth. And I felt awful for Morgan. It was true she slept around, but I knew under normal circumstances she wouldn’t ever have come on to my brother-in-law.
I thought about my best friend alone in that silo, and how she was selflessly insisting to be locked in, just to protect other people. I would have done anything to help her.
Then I thought of a way that maybe I could do something.
I turned back to Ian.
“You said Jason and Shawn and those guys have lunch at the house, right?”
“Yeah.” Ian shook his head, annoyed that my mom was being so hospitable. “Your mom’s keeping them well fed while they’re on patrol.”
“And Jason’s the only one you know of who has a pharmacy access card?”
“Well, yeah.” Ian looked at me warily. “Why?”
“Because I think I could get it from him.”
He was surprised at my suggestion. “Ashley, I couldn’t even get it from him. He has his whole squad to back him up.”
“But what if he didn’t? What if I got him alone? He’s been coming on to me non-stop since the fair. And I’m pretty sure I could get him drunk, or high on those pills of his. If I could talk to him alone for even just a minute at the house, I could set something up with him to meet somewhere. I’m sure I could get him to agree if he thought I wanted to sleep with him. It’s worth a try, right?”
“No way.” Ian shook his head emphatically. “That’s way to dangerous. You alone with that psycho? Come on. Ashley, no way.”
“What other way is there?” I asked. “You said yourself you can’t get the pharmacy access card from him, right?”
Ian didn’t respond, but he gave me a look of frustrated helplessness.
“Well then?” I said, trying to keep my voice low so Bryce and Chris wouldn’t hear me. “What’s the other option? You don’t have enough antibiotics to keep Morgan stable. What’s your plan? Just do nothing and let her progress to stage three?”
“Ashley, come on.”
“Give me a better plan.” I stepped in front him, forcing Ian to stop walking back to the granary and listen to me. “Give me a better plan, and I won’t do this,” I said. “Otherwise I’m getting Jason alone tomorrow and making him think I want to fuck him. I can get his access card. I know I can. I can do this.”
Ian didn’t say anything. He waved goodbye to Chris and walked me and Bryce back to my parent’s house along the river. He didn’t agree one way or another to my plan. But as we made our way through the growing darkness, I could tell he knew I was right.
There wasn’t any other way.