The world had completely changed. Josiah had no clue how long he’d been out of circulation but it had been long enough for everything he knew, everything he’d ever been part of, to vanish into dust. Vaguely, he remembered the reports about some kind of plague. He’d been up at Quantico when it went on lockdown as the shit hit the fan. He remembered getting sick and flashes from an office converted into a hospital room but then nothing. He’d woken up a few days ago to find the place deserted. There were a few bodies in various states of decomposition and the detritus of a building that had been left to the mercy of the elements when its builders deserted it. Nothing that could give him any answers and still no communications. His wife Caitlin would be frantic with no word from him. Of course, she would never let the twins Sandy and Dennis know that she was scared. Josiah liked to imagine that they were all waiting for him back in their suburban home just an hour outside of Atlanta. He’d get there and they’d be safe and sound, completely unchanged in a world that had flipped upside-down and then gotten twisted into something out of nightmare. And the guys at Quantico had treated it like a joke. Like it was something out of a movie from the 1970s — something best left forgotten like Tennessee tophats, pornstaches, leisure suits, and disco. People coming back from the dead and attacking the living was something that belonged in the horror or sci-fi sections of the local bookstore. Caitlin used to roll her eyes whenever Josiah picked up one of those books. Now he felt like he was living in the middle of one.
The road was quiet. He was thankful for that. He’d stolen a car a few miles out of Quantico and had stopped only to siphon gas from other cars. Obviously whatever it was that ended the world hadn’t been so far removed that the gas in the tanks had gone to water. Otherwise, Josiah would have found himself walking the distance from north Virgina back home to Athens. He’d seen only a few of the undead shuffling down the I-85. There had been more in the towns and on the roads he’d been forced to take to bypass some nasty blocked points on the interstate were abandoned cars made it impossible for him to get through. He found that odd. If anything, wouldn’t the undead be more prevalent on the major traffic corridors? People would be trying to flee in every direction. An interstate would present a great chance of eating. Muttering to himself that he shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Josiah wondered what Caitlin would say when he told her this story. She always got so fondly exasperated when he went into investigative mode. She said that was why he made such a great sheriff. Never mind that his father and his grandfather and even his great grandfather had been Clark County sheriffs and that taking care of his people was in his blood; she would insist that he made a great officer because he noticed little details most people ignored and could put them together to make a picture of the truth.
“Not like it’s doin’ me a lotta good right now,” he grimaced. “I ain’t got a clue what’s goin’ on.”
What he wanted to do was find his family, find some information, and then find a safe place to hole up until things got better. He also wanted to warn people to stay away from DC. For all its taking in trillions of dollars, the federal government had been caught completely flatfooted when the dead started waking up. Quantico had lasted as long as it had only because it was a military base. Josiah still couldn’t believe it had fallen and he wished like hell that he hadn’t woken up from his coma to find it deserted. Maybe once he got closer to Atlanta, he could figure out how to get into the CDC and someone there would have answers. They had to have people working on the problem night and day — that’s what the CDC was for, wasn’t it? Maybe he could take his family there and offer his services. He might not be a doctor but he could help with analyzing intelligence. Hell, that’s why he’d been in Quantico for training in the first place. If the doctors and scientists there hadn’t figured it out, maybe a fresh pair of novice eyes could see something or suggest something that they, with all their training and inherent prejudices, wouldn’t have considered.
Intel. Josiah almost slammed the brakes on the car as he realized that gathering intel on the undead hadn’t even crossed his mind. Someone needed to observe the things that had once been human. Maybe he could figure out if or how they “communicated,” what kind of things would attract them, what might repel them or at least be unworthy of their notice. Once they knew how the creatures reacted to various things and environments, then people could use that information to survive instead of becoming fodder for the unsleeping undead.
“As soon as I’m back with Caitlin and the kids, I’ll get right on it,” he muttered to himself. He glanced at the dashboard clock and sighed. He’d been on the road for six hours and, at the rate he was going, he’d be another twelve getting back home. The nine-hour drive had easily doubled. “Nothin’ to do ‘bout it now,” he reminded himself. “Just got to keep going until I get there.”
He ran through songs he’d known, stories he’d grown up with, and even some of the Bible as he drove. There was nothing on the radio to distract him — not even the EBS warnings. Just static and silence. Josiah needed to keep his mind on something other than the terror that threatened to overwhelm him. He was a man of action. His thoughts had often mired him in confusion and inaction as he second, third, and fourth guessed himself on everything until he’d learned to quit worrying and move ahead even with imperfect information. Normally he could find something to focus on to keep himself from stewing in that vicious cycle of catastrophizing. However, with the silence hanging heavy in the air and no solid knowledge that his family was waiting for him back in Athens, Josiah’s mind kept trying to go into overdrive with both fear, planning, and remembering. Out of the three, remembering would actually be the least painful so, with a weighty sigh, Josiah reached a compromise with his thoughts and let the memories wash over him.
“What do you mean we’re on lockdown? I’m supposed to get back to my wife and kids tomorrow!” Josiah said angrily. He’d already been held at Quantico for two weeks longer than he was supposed to have been there. Travel in the DC metro area and the major eastern corridor was all but shut down and the army had requested that civilians not use the interstates until the current crisis was over. The news had been full of some illness that was sweeping through New York. There were riots and the entire city had been overrun. After that, very little news came out of the place that fancied itself the world’s capital. News still came from out west — word of mass migrations away from the sunny California coasts. Whatever had silenced New York City had struck the West Coast shortly thereafter. Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, and Chicago were still sending out reports and the smaller cities across the United States were pulling out and dusting off their old radios in a rush to join in the conversation in hopes of getting to the bottom of this. Whatever it was. The phones had gone dead a few days ago due to overuse. Josiah had tried to send a message along a relay of shortwave radios for Caitlin to take the kids and head for the small hunting lodge they owned out near Morganton. It was back in the mountains and near a few good creeks and small rivers. If the US were falling apart, it’d be a good place to hole up for a while. He hoped she’d get his message and would make sure to stock up on all the essentials. The four of them could live easy out there for a year or more if needed. His biggest fear was that she would insist on trying to get all of their relatives out there. Their parents were all right but each of them had a couple of siblings who were worthless and would not enjoy being off in the middle of nowhere. Add in the nieces and nephews and Josiah wondered if any of them would be sane once everything blew over.
First though, he had to get out of Quantico and back home. If Caitlin hadn’t gotten his message, she would try to stay at the house. If there was a mandatory evacuation, she’d try to make it to the cabin if she could. If she couldn’t, there was a small cove on the coast — a place they’d camped at during their dating days — that they would try to meet up at. She would leave hints for him to follow back at their house if he couldn’t be there when she had to take the kids and leave. Still, Josiah was damned if he was going to sit safe and sound on a military base while the world went to hell and threatened to take his family with it.
“Just that, Peach Schnapps,” Colonel Hartford replied calmly. He’d dealt with enough civilians throwing fits over the military locking down the base and forbidding them from leaving. One Georgian sheriff wasn’t going to get a rise out of him. Josiah knew better than to groan or glare at the nickname that had been fixed on him after he’d only gone one round at the bar. “This epidemic is getting out of hand. The CDC sent its recommendations to the White House and the Commander in Chief sent his orders to me. We’re on lockdown until such a time as we are ordered to stand down from it. You’ll just have to hang out here with us until then. Now, you’re dismissed, Sheriff. I’m sorry that you’re stuck here away from your family but I’ve got bigger things on my plate at the moment than your homesickness.”
Josiah managed to keep his temper in check as he left the Colonel’s office. At least the man had been willing to give him the time of day. The same could not be said of the FBI Director who, as far as everyone could tell, had vanished into thin air. Grinding his teeth, the Georgian lawman pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called home again. He tried calling through to Caitlin’s cell but got the kind of busy signal that indicated a problem with the system. Little wonder there, he thought to himself as he passed by one of the many lobbies in the complex. All of them had their televisions blasting out one of the many 24-hour news channels’ coverage of events. Josiah stopped to listen while a pair of soft-handed slick-talkers speculated over the “ultimate cause” of this “superbug.” He snorted softly to himself knowing that, one way or another, these well-manicured members of the chattering class would find a way to blame the whole thing on the yokels.
“What the hell?” he heard one of the other men mutter in disbelief. Jo paused and turned to watch the scene unfolding on the screen in front of him. “Is that Times fucking Square?”
“That’s what it says,” another of the viewers replied tonelessly as he gestured at the screen. Josiah stared in horrified fascination at the carnage displayed in high-definition for them. The logo and newsticker running across the bottom of the screen indicated that this was a real-life news story but the event itself looked like something out of a low-budget Hollywood studio.
“Shut up and let me listen,” Josiah hissed at the men as he moved closer.
“…footage sent from a local station just an hour ago,” the voice-over was saying. “Dozens of New Yorkers had gathered in Times Square this morning in defiance of the quarantine orders. By noon, their numbers were in the hundreds. The office of the mayor was preparing to send in National Guard forces to enforce the curfew and quarantine when this happened.” On the screen, the protesters were milling about, mostly peaceful if pissed off. An impromptu man-on-the-street style interview suddenly turned into a horror film as screams filled the air. The protesters turned into a stampeding mob while the journalist and cameraman stayed in place and focused on the cause of the sudden chaos. The image was blurry and indistinct but it looked as if a crowd of people were ambling through Times Square.
“Dylan, they don’t look right,” the cameraman said, his voice indistinct.
“Jimmy, are you seeing this?” the reporter asked.
“Yeah… I think we need to get out of here.”
The picture on the screen came into sharp focus then. The crowd didn’t just ‘not look right’ — they looked like survivors of a war zone. Blackened blood stained their tattered clothing. Their skin was ashen and many sported heavy bruises and signs of deep cuts. From the way many of them walked, Josiah suspected that several had severe injuries to their legs or ankles. A thrumming din of noise preceded the crowd, its buzz like that of a swarm of bees.
“Makes me think about those Civil War re-enacters,” someone whispered. “Sounds like the aftermath of Antietam.” Jo nodded in agreement. Maybe this plague or whatever that had Quantico on lockdown had caused these people to break out of quarantine and that’s how they’d gotten so injured. The more he studied them, the more they looked like they’d survived a desperate fight of some kind. But when the camera focused on one of the faces in the crowd, all of his quick assessments flew out the window.
“Dylan,” the cameraman said, “we need to get out of here.” The panic in the man’s voice came through the broadcast clearly.
“Are you crazy? No one’s gotten an interview with one of the infected, Jimmy! C’mon!” The cameraman stayed where he was as the journalist darted towards the ambling crowd, microphone in hand.
“Dylan? Dylan! Get back here!” Dylan ignored his cameraman and reached out to touch one of the infected — a young woman with dark, matted hair. Whatever he said to her was lost when Dylan screamed in terror. The woman lunged at him and sank her teeth into his neck. Blood spurted from the wound, spraying her and the other infected nearby as Dylan stumbled back a few feet before collapsing. The people near him swarmed over his body and his shouts quickly ended in a series of gurgles. Jimmy, the cameraman, kept his focus on the carnage. “Oh Christ,” he whispered, “they’re eating him…”
“Is this shit for real?” Josiah muttered.
“Sounds like a zombie movie to me,” one of the others agreed. Josiah glanced over and dredged the man’s name from memory — Wes.
“So, we’re safe so long as we don’t get bitten? Will garlic repel them? Crosses? Holy water?” another man, Rob, asked, panic making what once would have been a flippant conversation one of deadly earnest.
“No, that’s all for vampires,” one of the MPs posted at the nearby duty station volunteered. “Zombies and vampires are different things.”
“Are we honestly having this conversation?” Josiah wondered. “Zombies versus vampires? Are werewolves next?”
“Vampires and werewolves aren’t real, Peach Schnapps,” Wes snapped.
“Neither were zombies until ten minutes ago!” Josiah shouted back. “Now we’re sitting here discussing how to handle them like we’re all actors in some kind of B movie? Besides, if getting bit is the only way to turn into one of these things, then how did this plague get started and spread so damned fast? Or is this something new? The problem is that no one knows anything and we’re all talking out our asses while the rest of the world goes to hell!”
“Not shit we can do about it,” Wes shouted right back. “We’re on lockdown! Or are you gonna pull a Dirty Harry and try to bust your way out of here like some kind of hero?” Josiah stood up from the couch and turned to leave before Wes could goad him further. The last thing either of them needed was for frayed tempers to snap and Josiah and Wes to get into a fist-fight. “That’s right, get up. Leave. Chickenshit.”
“Back off, Wes,” Rob warned.
“If Peach Schnapps has a problem, he can say so to my face,” Wes sneered. “Unless he’s too much of a candyass who wants to pretend like we didn’t just see a bunch of zombies eating some guy live on television!” Josiah kept walking away. He heard pounding footsteps rushing towards him and turned at the last moment to see Wes running towards him, one arm pulled back with a fist. Ducking out of the blow, Josiah tried to keep going but Wes whirled around and tackled him.
“Fuck off, Wes,” Josiah snarled as he and the other man wrestled and fought. “I don’t have time to put up with your bullshit!” The fight went on for much longer than Jo thought it would before a pair of MPs pulled them apart. Wes writhed and swore, screaming that he was going to pound Josiah into pulp while the Georgian let himself be dragged away. He knew that he’d given a good accounting of himself in that brawl but Wes had managed to land enough blows that Jo knew he probably had a concussion. Everything got blurry, hazy, and then went dark.
Hours later, Jo woke up to see that he was being held in his quarters. An MP stood guard at the door. Gauze dressings covered his hands and he could feel bandages on his face. His whole body hurt and his throat was dry and parched. Coughing, he looked around for something to drink.
“You awake this time or just fading in a bit?” an orderly asked. Josiah startled — he had not noticed the man in the room with him. “Here, you can’t hold anything with your hands wrapped up like that.” The orderly went to the kitchenette and filled a glass with water. He returned with it and helped Jo sit up enough to drink some of it down. “Of all the times for two officers of the law to get into a brawl in the middle of the FBI headquarters on a military base,” the man laughed.
“Sick as hell, Mr. Denton. That’s why he attacked you.”
“He attacked me because he and I don’t like each other,” Jo countered.
“No, he attacked you because he’s sick. This illness makes people aggressive. But, he’s under lock and key now just like you. The rest of the base is on high alert and stricter quarantine measures are being laid down. You are not to attempt to leave this room until the quarantine has been lifted. Your tests came back clean which is the only reason I’m not in here in an iso-suit.”
“What’s going on out there? We saw a news report about the infected eating people. That’s what set Wes off. I said it was like we were in a zombie flick and he got mad.”
“Zombie flick,” the orderly chuckled. “No, the infected don’t eat people. What you saw was mass hysteria in New York. While the illness makes people more aggressive, it doesn’t turn them into cannibals or zombies.”
“Are you sure? It looked like they were eating that guy on television…”
“Mr. Denton, the infected don’t eat people. They’ll attack others, they’ll get weak, they’ll die. But they don’t wander around cities in crowds and then start eating whoever they come across. That’s the kind of thing that belongs on one of those cable networks that has a few dozen viewers. Now, you get some rest. I’ll be back to check on you periodically.”
Josiah nodded and laid back down. He wanted to believe that everything was under control. He needed to believe it. Closing his eyes, he prayed that when he opened them, he’d awaken to find that the entire thing had just been some kind of bad dream.
Instead, the next time he opened them, he found that the nightmare was quite real.
As he drove, Josiah remembered that night. He’d woken up shivering even though the temperature that time of year was sweltering even after sundown. The next several days had been a fever-fogged haze of confusion. From his room, he could hear some of it. More and more people were getting sick. Once, he woke up to find himself in an office instead of his quarters. His bed had been replaced with a cot. Groans, pleas, and sobs filled the fetid air. Then nothing. He’d woken a few days ago to find himself completely alone except for the dead around him. Signs of a panicked evacuation were clear in the disorder at Quantico. Doors hung at crazed angles on broken hinges where they were not simply laying flat on the floor, broken into splinters. Desks, tables, couches had all been overturned. Bullet holes marred the walls and must have been the cause for some of the shattered glass that littered the floors. Blood splatters stained the walls in various patterns that had Josiah’s inner detective working overtime even as he fought to stifle his own sense of panic. The first thing he’d done was make his way back to his quarters where, luckily, some of his own clothing had been left behind. No water came out of the taps when he opened them so he used water from the toilet to wash the sweat and blood off his body. His wounds had healed and, after being up and moving around, the stiffness and weakness from being laid up was gone. Once he was clean and dressed in his own clothes, he began scavenging through the rest of the complex for supplies and any information he could find.
Quantico was a shambles. By the time Josiah felt confident leaving it three days later, he’d added a coat, some blankets, a military canteen, purification tablets, and several first aid kits to his supplies in addition to the canned food he’d found tucked away in a box where someone had forgotten it in a rush to leave. His own car was, surprisingly, still parked where he’d left it but, not so surprisingly, the gas had all been siphoned out of the tank. He broke open the window to pop the trunk where he hid his pistol and ammo whenever he traveled to Maryland and a sturdier hiking backpack. Luckily, whoever had picked over his car hadn’t thought to look underneath the spare tire. Strapping the backpack on, he set out from Quantico headed south for home.