Before the First Bite

The Resistance is Dead

Book 1: The Outbreak

Act I

 

Chapter 1: The Virus Threat

President Adam Chambers was sweating. He drummed his fingers and stared out the window of Marine One as it made the short trip from the White House to the Pentagon. The unidentified disease spreading like wildfire down below was too much of a risk for the Secret Service to consider using a limousine. Chambers was wearing a three-piece suit underneath a hazmat suit, and the combination of nerves and layers had him sweating hard.

The city looked abandoned. There were few cars and no pedestrians to be seen. The State of Emergency he declared the night before enacted a self-quarantine to virtually all American citizens for a period of two days (except a few power company employees in each area, who were provided with government issued protective gear). He hoped that this approach would both minimize further spread of the virus and help buy some more time. The CDC itself was still gathering intel when he made the choice to take action.

The helicopter carried the president, along with Secretary of State Ben Ryan, and Chief of Staff Hector Santiago. All three of them hadn’t slept in two days, and they were staring out their windows. Ben spoke first, “It looks so empty. I’ve never seen the city like this.”

Chambers nodded faintly, “I hope the quarantine helps, and I’m glad people are taking it seriously, but it is very unsettling to look down on the city and see no movement.”

“You did the right thing, you know,” said Hector, sweating even more profusely than the president. Santiago was taller than average, with a generously padded midsection. “You had to take action, and all of the other world leaders followed your example. That could be the key to stopping this thing.”

The president looked up to his friend and smiled, “Thanks, Hector. I don’t think we’re there yet, but it was a start. I just hope the CDC or Military has been able to dig up something we can work with.”

Marine One touched down at the Pentagon landing pad, where General Brent Martin, head of the Army, stood at attention waiting for them. The four hazmat-suited figures jogged in a cluster toward the building.

As the doors closed behind them, Hector gasped, “When do we get out of these suits? I can’t take it much longer.”

Through the fog of his own face mask, President Chambers looked expectantly to the general.

Martin remained grim. “Wait until we get into the NMCC. The outer office areas are considered compromised. About 30% of our general staff has been confirmed sick. This way, gentlemen.”

The National Military Command Center was one of several disaster-ready bases that had been built for the US government years earlier. It was a self-contained fortress within a fortress. This was where the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many prominent members of Congress had taken shelter. The rest of the leadership in government were scattered throughout other high security bunkers in the DC area and elsewhere around the country. All of the locations were still safe, but some were more recently renovated than others. This was one of the best, rivalled only by the White House Situation Room, where the president, his staff, and their immediate families had taken shelter.

By the time they arrived at the NMCC, Chambers could barely see through his visor. His sweat beaded on the plastic face mask as if it were a greenhouse. He could only imagine how Hector felt. The airlock was still hissing shut behind them as they unzipped and peeled themselves out of their plastic wombs, grateful even in this time of crisis. After being presented with towels and bottled water, and taking a few moments to settle in, Chambers stood up and walked towards General Martin, ready to work.

“Are we waiting on anyone else?” Chambers asked, sounding much more calm than he felt.

“Stephens from the CDC is due any minute, Mr. President. Everyone else is accounted for.” Martin was even-keeled, as ever.

Chambers felt comfortable around him, more than he did around the other Joint Chiefs, at least. Martin was frank and sincere, which Chambers admired.

Surveying the room, the president made eye contact with a number of somewhat disheveled soldiers and politicians. The room was still and composed, yet there was an undeniable heaviness in the air. Piles of overnight bags were leaned up against the wall near the coffee maker, but other than that, there weren’t any other signs that the NMCC had become a makeshift dorm for over half of the people there.

Dr. Amanda Stephens arrived just then, slightly flustered and out of breath. As she removed her hazmat suit, everyone began to congregate toward to central table.

The president raised his hand to quiet the room, and settled in his seat. “First of all, let me say that I am glad to see everyone here. I hope that your families are also in good health. And if anyone has any questions, please save them until after we are all brought up to speed. For the sake of time, I am told that the Joint Chiefs have selected General Martin as their spokesman today, and have brought him up to speed on the intel they have gathered over the past few days. I am fine with that, but if Admiral Fulton, General De Salvo or General Burns recall a fact or detail that may be overlooked by the general, I ask that you speak up. General Martin, why don’t you tell us what you have gathered so far.”

Martin stood, “Sir, the reason that the Joint Chiefs appointed me to speak on all of our behalf is that the reports from each of our branches are entirely consistent with one another. We have no missing inventory in research labs, no intelligence incriminating any terrorist organization or possible unfriendly nations. No threats, no suspects, and no leads.”

The president’s brow wrinkled. “So you’re telling me that you have nothing?”

“Not exactly, sir. The intelligence we have gathered suggests strongly that whatever is happening is not biological warfare. The symptoms don’t match up with any agents we’ve been working on.” Martin began to pace as he spoke, “Also, there have been no deaths so far among the soldiers who are infected, or in the civilian population near bases. Furthermore, enemy and friendly nations alike are dealing with infection rates very similar to what we are facing here at home.”

Chambers considered what he was told, “Is that all you have to report, general?”

“So far, yes, Mr. President.”

Chambers cracked a grin as Martin took his seat, “Well I suppose that is a good thing. A very good thing. We can have our next meeting as a teleconference then, rather than flying everyone out to meet in person. Dr. Stephens, does the CDC have any deeper insight into this matter than you did two days ago?”

Dr. Stephens stood, still a bit flushed from her run through the Pentagon, “To start with, the good news. Of the two hundred casualties associated with this outbreak so far, a hundred and eighty of them have been determined to be from other ailments and circumstances. It could very well be that this virus, however contagious, will turn out to be non-fatal.”

This caused a stir in the room for a few seconds before the president raised his hand for silence.

“Go on, Doctor.”

“We have two subjects in our main facility who both first got sick Tuesday night. They stayed home from work the next day and contacted us once the news picked up on the virus. We have kept them under close observation since Wednesday evening. When they arrived, their symptoms were flaring up. I thought they would die within a day, but they seemed to plateau. As of today their symptoms are noticeably subsiding,” she passed around pictures of the subjects, “The top photos are from the day they were admitted, and the bottom photos were taken just before I flew out here, after only two days of observation.”

“What kind of medication have you been giving them?” Chambers asked as he looked over the pictures.

“At first we were giving them antibiotics. That is, of course, until we determined yesterday that the disease is viral.”

“No meds?” he asked, searching for a pattern.

“No sir,” she replied.

“And only twenty deaths across the nation have been confirmed to be caused by this virus?” he asked, still doubting what he heard.

Amanda shook her head, “Those cases are still being investigated, sir. They have not been officially linked with the virus yet. There was a lot of hysteria when this first hit the news feed. The two hundred cases we had originally considered were buried in thousands of erroneous reports. It just took some time to sift through it all. What’s more, the rate of recovery is almost identical with both subjects. With minimal intervention, except for the IV drip we’ve been feeding them, their own immune systems seem to be dealing with the virus just fine.”

“And you’re sure they have the virus, and not just a couple of colds?”

“We are positive, Mr. President. When they arrived they displayed the whole spectrum of symptoms associated with this bug. Swelling eyes, swollen throat, congestion, vomiting, high fever, and so on. They now appear to be stabilizing.”

“Ok, So what’s the bad news, then?” Chambers asked, hardly able to believe the report so far.

Stephens went from leaning forward excitedly to sitting back in her chair as she answered, “Well sir, we are still at a loss for detecting a pattern that would lead us to the source of this breakout. Normally pandemics can be traced back to a point of origin by simply following the trail of infection. With this disease, it seems that there are either multiple points of origin, or a much longer than usual incubation period. We’re still not sure which one. It could be both. We may be close to shedding some light on the matter, but it is impossible to tell how close.”

President Chambers sat in silence for a few moments, plotting out his plan of action. “So the military believes this is not an act of bioterrorism, and the CDC believes this virus may not even be fatal, yet it doesn’t follow any patterns of previous pandemics, and is still an undetermined level of threat against the population. Meanwhile, I have ordered the entire country to remain indoors for two days to minimize contagion and I need a plan of action to deliver to the people of this nation by tomorrow night, when the curfew is either lifted or extended. I have to say that since this disease has already wreaked havoc on the American economy, I am not eager to turn my back on it too soon.”

Chambers sighed, “Dr. Stephens, tell me plainly, was the curfew I enacted an over-reaction?”

Stephens shook her head and leaned forward once again. “I do not believe so sir. This disease has already spread much faster than any pandemic on record. It unfolds in a very aggressive manner during the first stages of infection. Frankly, Mr. President, I am quite surprised at how quickly the patients seem to be recovering. I would not say that we are fully out of the woods yet, but there is reason to be hopeful nonetheless.”

President Chambers nodded, “Alright, it is currently 7:05pm. I think we should meet again at 7:00am tomorrow, this time via teleconference, and then have one more briefing at 6:45 tomorrow evening, before I announce the conditions of this State of Emergency to the country. Dr. Stephens, I want you to report to me every two hours starting tomorrow morning at 6, call me tonight if there are any significant developments. Those patients of yours are the key to getting through this intact.”

“Yes sir,” Dr. Stephens replied, grinning.

Chambers continued, “As of right now, if the patients stay on their current rate of recovery, I will enact a partial lifting of the quarantine tomorrow night, allowing those who do not have symptoms to continue their normal routine. Right now we’re betting heavily on the idea that those who have contracted this virus will be over the hump and returning to work within the next few days, and life can go back to normal. I will begin to write my address to the country this evening. If developments continue along this path I will have some good news to share with the nation. Let’s just hope that the trend continues. That being said, until we know for sure that this virus is non-lethal and the threat is behind us, all preventative measures will remain in effect, including the mandatory use of hazmat suits when outside protected areas. Is that clear, and are there any questions?”

The table was silent before him. Chambers waited a few seconds just in case. He saw a lot of smiles on the faces he scanned and realized he was smiling too.

“Then it’s settled. Be safe people, get some rest, and we will reconvene bright and early. I hope you are all as encouraged as I am by the news Dr. Stephens has given us, and I thank you for your diligence in handling this crisis so far,” President Chambers and the rest of the table stood. Those who had flown in began to radio their pilots and put their hazmat suits back on.

Fifteen minutes later, he boarded Marine One with Hector and Ben. They rode back to the White House more or less in silence, but each man stared out the window with a smile this time.

That night, President Chambers slept like the dead. Knowing that the disease was not an act of war had set his mind at rest, and hearing that it might cause minimal casualties had given him an unexpected surge of hope. He used that energy to write a draft of his planned address to the nation, and was sound asleep by 10pm.

At 4:15am the president’s phone rang. He answered in a daze, “Hello?”

The voice on the other end was fully awake, “Mr. President, there’s been a development.”

Chapter 2: Stuck Inside

 

Patrick Mills sat in his mother’s living room, watching the sunrise through a dense blanket of fog that clung to the empty streets of the neighborhood. An hour earlier he had been woken up by the sound of her going through yet another coughing fit.

It took him a minute to put on his paper mask and rubber gloves, but she insisted he gear up any time he came into her room, and as minimal as the protection might be, it was better than nothing. He checked on her first and she waved him off with a thumbs up, her face buried in a small trash can she hacked directly into. After getting her water and food, he showered and fixed his own breakfast.

The curfew was due to be lifted that evening. Patrick had been staying with his mother to help her through her sickness for two days when it started. Thankfully he had restocked on food before the announcement, but he wondered how many had been stuck with little to no supplies.

The president had allowed a two-hour window for citizens without symptoms to get what they needed before the curfew took place, but had ordered local police to monitor grocery stores to ensure there would be no looting, and to detain anyone with symptoms that showed up. In his address, President Chambers implored citizens to be considerate of their neighbors, and to buy some extra foodstuffs to leave at the door of those who were known to be ill, assuring the public that they only needed supplies for two days, and setting restrictions on the number of purchases to ensure supplies were distributed as equally as possible. This was also enforced by local police.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but the public was surprisingly compliant, and there were only a few reported incidents of either fights or sick people showing up (who were always spotted and dealt with quickly, before getting close to the stores). Even still, it didn’t account for those who weren’t paying attention until it was too late. Patrick was grateful that he had been prepared, and also grateful that he hadn’t started to develop symptoms of his own. It was hard to believe that a paper mask, some gloves, and a whole lot of washing and sanitizing would be enough to keep him safe from a disease that infected roughly one third of the world’s population so far, and that had infected his mother just one room away, but it seemed to do the trick. He wondered how many others hadn’t been so lucky.

Patrick turned on the TV and loaded his most recent save in Dim Outlook (a zombie survival game, with free-running elements). He needed to get out of his head, and didn’t even slightly consider the irony of dealing with the current, potentially world-ending scenario by escaping into a post-apocalyptic fantasy. He was an avid fan of all things undead, having amassed enough memorabilia over the years to actually turn it into a business. He made a living by selling his discoveries at a slight markup on his website and at zombie conventions. The thrill of the hunt was always more interesting than holding on to the treasures he found (with a few exceptions). He also maintained a moderately successful Youtube channel where twice a month he would review films, games, comics, or books related to the undead. He knew many classic films word for word, had read countless books on the subject (often more than once), and enjoyed immersing himself in zombie-themed video games most of all.

 

Within minutes he was completely focused on the game and the weight of helplessness was temporarily forgotten.

An hour later, Regginator_29 logged in to play. Patrick’s phone rang within seconds. He guided his character to a safe rooftop before answering, setting his Android in a mostly empty candy dish beside him on speakerphone. This made Reggie sound almost, but not quite, like he was speaking through a walkie talkie, which helped with immersion.

“What the hell are you doing up so early, or should I say, up so late?” Reggie asked, while his character tossed a zombie into a spiked wall.

“Same as you, looks like. Nice one! I’ve been fighting off hordes since dawn. Had to help mom, and didn’t really see a point in going back to sleep.” Patrick jumped down from his perch and landed on the head of a zombie. A piece of brain obstructed the camera for a few seconds before fading. Touches like that made the difference between average and exceptional games, in his view.

“How’s she doing?” Reggie asked, as his avatar scrambled up to a familiar stretch of rooftops.

Patrick’s character followed on up, “It’s been about the same since yesterday. She’s not getting better, but she’s not getting worse. She hasn’t vomited yet today, so that’s good. What about your brother?”

Reggie replied offhand, clearly absorbed by the game, “He’s hanging in there. His wife is taking care of him, and she hasn’t gotten it yet. My parents out in Washington are both still ok too, thankfully. This thing is just too crazy. I am so glad that I live alone right now…How about you? You sound healthy.”

Reggie cleared his throat, whether out of belated embarrassment or coincidence, Patrick couldn’t tell. The two characters began to race through a familiar course of obstacles that they had run countless times before.

“Yeah, I feel fine, you jerk. I scrubbed all the surfaces in the house when I got here, and wash my hands about a hundred times a day. Plus, I’ve gone through at least half a dozen boxes of facemasks and rubber gloves so far. Not taking any chances.”

“Wait, did you upgrade your agility recently?” Reggie asked, distracted. His character struggled to tighten the lead held by Patrick’s avatar, doubletaptrick (a nod to Zombieland, one of his favorite films).

“Maybe,” Patrick replied with a grin.

“You bastard! Have you been playing all night?”

The final stretch of their race was underway, and while Reggie hadn’t given up, Patrick wasn’t slowing down.

Leaning forward slightly, Patrick said, “Nah, just since dawn. I leveled up two minutes before you logged in. Bad timing, friend.”

Doubletaptrick turned to face Regginator_29 as he approached the finish line, he hopped once in victory, and then spun around in circles, with a five second lead at the end.

Reggie laughed, “Rub it in, why don’t you? Alright, so considering what is going on in the world, what with the plague and the state of emergency and everything, I think it’s time for you and I to have the talk.”

Patrick thought for a second before answering. “The talk? What talk?”

“Oh, come on bro! You don’t remember the plan we made a couple of years ago, about what we would do if shit went down? We are going to steal a church bus, then gather up our friends, and head to an island on the outer banks, where we can live off of fish, crab, and local vegetation. That is our best chance for survival and you know it. We need to have the talk about when we are going to enact the plan, man.”

Patrick vaguely recalled the conversation. “Remind me again, why would we steal a church bus?”

“Because they always keep them fully fueled! Plus, you can transport a whole bunch of people and food and guns and whatever else you need when you’ve got a church bus. And they blend in too. You never see a church bus get pulled over by the cops, man. It just doesn’t happen! Not to mention whoever does maintenance on a church bus has the fear of God in them, so you know everything under the hood is working just fine.”

Their avatars remained on the roof for the time being. Patrick began to recall more details of that very drunk conversation from years earlier, “So you think that this bug or whatever is going to lead to a real life zombie apocalypse?”

Reggie laughed, “Seriously? I don’t think so, although I have considered the thought and don’t you tell me that you haven’t also. It would be amazing if this led to zombies, but this is turning out to be more like The Stand. I think that a lot of people are going to just die, period. But that will change how the world operates. I mean think about the impact of just this curfew. All commerce, all work stopped everywhere for two days. Do you know how many hundreds of billions of dollars were lost because of this? And it didn’t bring us any closer to a solution. The president, man, he was just stalling for time. If no one else gets sick somehow, this thing has already wiped out a third of populations worldwide, a third of the world’s workforce. It doesn’t matter what President Chambers says tonight, the damage is done and we are about to deal with the aftermath. Stick a fork in it, because this turkey is cooked! So I say after the address tonight, we meet up and get on with the plan. Are you in?”

With that, Regginator_29 leaped off the building and resumed killing zombies. After a moment, doubletaptrick also jumped into the action.

They fought the hordes in silence for a few moments before Patrick answered. “To be honest, I don’t know man. I mean, saying it and planning it out when it was a hypothetical scenario is one thing, but you’re serious.”

Just then, he found himself grappled by a zombie from behind, and barely managed to fight it off. He did, eventually, but felt shaken, “I’ve been so caught up with taking care of mom that I haven’t really given much thought to what to do next. I know, I know, rule #1 ‘always be aware, always be prepared’.”

“Exactly. I’m sorry Pat, but this is a great time to start thinking about it. You’ve got all day to think about it.”

Reggie cleared out the entire alleyway as he spoke, his character moving like a ninja, every swing leading to a kill. Patrick stopped playing for a few seconds just to watch him work. Reggie continued without missing a beat. It seemed that what he spoke actually helped him play much better than Patrick had ever seen before.

“We can do this, man. All those paintball sessions and all that shooting we’ve done at ranges over the years has been to prepare us for the big collapse. Now you know that I’m locked, stocked, and ready to rock. And I know you have the right mind to deal with complex problems quickly and that you can handle yourself with a gun if you have to. We can ride this storm out, but the sooner we take action, the better off we’ll be.”

Patrick logged out of the game, his head spinning. This was a conversation worth his undivided attention, “You’re right. But I can’t just leave my mom. I mean, she might get better. This might not be all that bad. I know you’re ready to go, but it could just blow over. We don’t know what could happen next.”

“True enough. We don’t know what could happen next, but it doesn’t look good. I’m sorry about your mom, Patrick, I really am. But there may be nothing more you can do for her at this point. You can’t just write yourself a death sentence because you can’t let go. Well, you can, but you really shouldn’t. You need to think about what you are going to do next. I’m going to an island to ride this out. I’m going to live on fish and crab and coconuts, and I want you to come with me. Whaddya say?”

Patrick sighed, “That’s a pretty big request, bro. I really can’t give you an answer on the spot. Tell you what, I’ll call you as soon as the president finishes his address tonight. I’ll pack up in the meanwhile in case I decide to come, and I’ll let you know depending on what he says.”

Reggie sounded relieved, “Deal. I hope Chambers goes on the air and tells us everything will be fine, that this is just a bad flu season, but it makes sense to be ready in case he doesn’t say that. Don’t forget to charge your phone, bro. Later.”

Patrick pondered the implications of joining his friend on a crazy outlaw adventure. He mused over the numerous times he had imagined living in a real world zombie apocalypse. His mother was a wildcard. He had never thought to consider what would happen to her when imagining what he would do in a post-apocalyptic scenario. It was always him (and his friends) against the world. He couldn’t just run out on her, not in this condition. She needed him. Why did real life have to be so complicated?

His mother’s voice drew him out of his thoughts, drifting faintly from her room, “Patrick? Come here, son. We need to talk.”

He stood up, got on his gear, and poked his head into her room. Feeling ashamed of what he was just thinking, he used the door as a shield of sorts, “Hey ma, how you feeling?”

She looks better than yesterday, he thought. It may have been wishful thinking, but she seemed to have a less swollen face with more color. She was also sitting upright for the first time in days.

“Stuffy, miserable, and sick, what do you expect?” she said, with a half smile that he knew meant she was feeling good enough to joke.

He grinned back behind his mask, “Well at least you’ve still got your sense of humor. Can I bring you anything?”

“Cut the crap, kid. I heard what Reggie said, and I think he has a good point,” her voice sounded almost as firm as it ever was when she was healthy and refusing to back down on a matter.

“Wait-you heard that?”

“Yeah, he was on speakerphone, and you left the door open a bit this morning. I heard it all, and while I do not think you guys should steal a church bus, it might be a good idea to get out of town for a while.”

Patrick finally stepped out from behind the door, “But what about you? I can’t just leave you here, sick and helpless. Let me stay here and help you get back on your feet. Reggie is just talking crazy. He’s dreamed of living out our favorite movies since we were kids.”

She frowned, adjusting herself to sit up even more. Her mind was made up, and whatever Annie May Mills said next would be the end of the matter. He knew the drill.

“Nonsense, Patrick. Whatever is going on is a major event the world has never seen before. You, me, Reggie, no one really knows what is going on, or what to do about it. Reggie happens to be prepared for the worse, I happen to be sick with whatever this turns out to be. You happen to still be healthy, but you won’t be for long if you stay here with me. Besides, I am starting to feel better.”

As soon as she finished speaking she began to cough; but, to her credit, got the coughing under control much quicker than she’d been able to during the past few days. She continued after a few seconds, sounding as determined and resolute as ever, “I think I could manage feeding and watering myself for a few days while you guys go camping on the beach, or whatever. Just don’t steal a church bus. You’re smarter than that. I don’t want you getting arrested. Take my van instead. Promise me that. It’s not like I’m going to be using it anytime soon.”

Patrick couldn’t believe what he was hearing, “You’re saying I’m not allowed to stay and take care of you?”

“Yes, if staying here and taking care of me gets you sick and kills you too, that is exactly what I’m saying.” She looked him square in the eye, “You are very lucky to still have your health to bargain with. Please, Patrick, don’t press your luck. Leave. Tonight. And take my van.”

After a silent moment, he shrugged, “We’ll be back in a few days. Hopefully you’ll be better by then. Thanks ma.”

“Thanks yourself. I really needed your help this week. You’ve earned a break. Now go get ready. I’m going to take a nap.”

He closed the door to her room and began to pack. It didn’t take long, since he had been living mostly out of his bag in the first place. Next he cleaned out his mom’s van, which took about ten minutes. She was always neat, and didn’t live in her vehicle as much as he did. He then gathered up everything that he might need from his car, which took a bit longer. And that was it. He was ready to go. Nothing left to do but wait. He felt antsy, caged in, impatient. After a few minutes of pacing and thinking he decided to log back in his Dim Outlook game. It helped to pass the time.

Chapter 3: The Curfew Lifts

 

Patrick called Reggie two hours before the president’s address. His cabin fever had grown exponentially throughout the day. Reggie picked up on the first ring, “Hey bro, have you made up your mind?”

Patrick couldn’t help but smile at how unfazed and upbeat his friend sounded, and why wouldn’t he? Current events were a nightmare come true, in the best way possible according to Reginald Edwards. “I’m in, but only under certain conditions. First, we’re not going to steal a church bus. I’ve got my mom’s van instead. Second, do you have a bike rack? We’re going to need bikes for everyone that’s coming. Third, we’ll need to swing by my place before skipping town. I have a few things I want to pick up.”

Reggie sounded overjoyed, but tried to mask it, “No church bus? You’re killing me, man. For now, that’s ok, but we’ll come back to it later. The bikes are a great idea. I’ll get it all ready. And there’s no problem making a few pit stops on the way out. Kayla is on board so we’ll need to pick her up, but I haven’t been able to reach Eric or Dez so far. I’ll keep trying them. So you’re ok with leaving tonight?”

“Yeah. The sooner we get set up, the better I’ll feel. I know you are ready to embrace the apocalypse, but I’m hoping that this whole thing is just a hiccup, and things will start getting back to normal soon. So as far as I’m concerned, we are going camping. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not ready to accept the end of the world just yet. We just don’t know what will happen next. I still have hope, and as long as I see this is a simple camping trip, I can hang on to that. So just humor me.”

Reggie replied in a more serious tone, “I hear you, man, but just to be clear, I have not given up on hope. From an evolutionary perspective, this shitstorm is just the kick in the pants that the human race needs. Now, you and I have talked about this situation way too many times for me to have to list all the reasons why. You’re right that no one knows what will come of this, but red flags are being raised all over the place and we need to be smart about what we do in the next few hours. You want to view this as a weekend getaway, at least for now, I’m cool with that. I was planning on bringing all my camping gear anyway, but I will also be bringing a number of guns, my crossbows, and a few other odds and ends to deal with…well, anything really. If you’re alright with that, then we are golden. Pick me up as soon as Chambers lifts the curfew and we’ll be on our way.”

“Will do. Thanks, Reg. I’ll see you in a few hours.” Patrick hung up the phone and within minutes got back to exploring the cityscape of Dim Outlook. His pulse was racing at first and his cheeks were flushed, but as he got into the rhythm of slaying zombies and scaling obstacles, a sense of calm determination took over. Patrick smiled. He was in the zone.

President Chambers sat in the Oval Office, reciting the lines of his speech out loud to himself. While many politicians in recent decades had grown to depend on teleprompters whenever delivering a televised speech, Chambers had been involved in theater throughout school, and used the skills of memorizing scripts and improvisation to his advantage throughout his political career.

A few reporters and bloggers had picked up on how Chambers seemed to look directly into the camera more consistently than any of his opponents, who looked merely at the camera. This distinction made him come across as more sincere. They all attributed that, along with a number of other traits, to his ever-growing popularity.

The secret of his success was that Adam Chambers understood the need for showmanship in political theater while also believing the rhetoric that he consistently delivered to voters. He was an optimistic and uncorrupted voice for the disenfranchised citizens of America. Chambers knew how to play the crooked game of politics without somehow getting himself dirty. He was the exception that proved the rule.

But all of that popularity and clout was on the line, depending entirely on what would unfold during the next few days. He felt confident about his decision to enact a curfew in the first place, and bolstered by the discoveries made by the CDC recently. Yet a twinge of doubt still gripped onto him despite those developments. Chambers would allow himself to feel relieved once the epidemic was over and behind them, and not a moment sooner.

He was drawn out of his deep thoughts and reciting by a ringing phone. He knew it was 6pm without needing to check a clock, and he knew that it was Dr. Stephens before he answered.

Despite the late arrival to the Pentagon the night before, she was incredibly punctual.

“Hello Doctor, any new developments?” he asked, while reluctantly lowering the speech. It was mostly memorized by this point, but he was also running out of time.

“Thankfully not, sir. The patients are still stable, and Dr. Grant has yet to develop any symptoms. I know you’re busy, but I just wanted to check in and say that we are still good on our end,” she sounded happy, but also exhausted.

“Thank you, Amanda. I am very glad to hear it. I appreciate you keeping me updated today. You can take the night off to rest. Just let me know if any other developments take place during the next few days.”

Chambers allowed a moment for his words to sink in. “I’ll be lifting the curfew at 7:00 tonight, unless things start to turn south. Please call me right away if anything should happen. Otherwise get some rest. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir. You’re welcome, sir,” with that, she hung up.

President Chambers thought about the six hours of sleep he had the night before, and how that was clearly more than Dr. Stephens had allowed herself to get. He was grateful to have such loyal and devoted people working with him.

As he went back to reciting his speech, Chambers thought about the call that had woken him up so early that morning. How excited Dr. Stephens was to tell him about the ripped seam that Dr. Grant had worn into the room of the two patients.

Grant’s suit had been torn since day one as it turned out when analyzing security footage afterwards. Such a massive breach in protocol had allowed the CDC to discover that not only was the mystery virus non-lethal, it was most likely not very contagious, at least by traditional means.

While this presented a whole slew of new questions to answer (as in, how the damned thing spread in the first place, among others), the observation helped to bolster a hopeful outlook in the coming days. Everything seemed neatly tied up, and much more of a temporary setback than an extinction level event, as they had all feared just days earlier.

The president couldn’t shake the feeling that things would not resolve themselves so easily. It all felt too much like a sitcom from the past. He watched Brady Bunch reruns as a kid, and had always remembered the episode where they visited the Grand Canyon. Bobby and Cindy got lost, and while the family was frantic with concern and all the right music cues were there, Adam felt not the slightest bit of worry about how long it would take them to find the kids, because he knew that they had to get into some other kind of trouble in the very next episode.

That was the moment when he realized how many other things he could be doing with his time, rather than watch the same formula repeat itself over and over at different levels of intensity in half hour increments.

The real world was never as nice and neat as those shows presented it to be, and rather than escape in the fantasy of wishing they were, he made up his mind fairly young that he would do the best he could to make the world he actually lived in a better place.

He set up a food donation network by visiting local restaurants and asking them to donate whatever products they had that were no longer fit to sell, but not spoiled or fit for the trash either. Once he convinced five restaurants to go along with his plan, he recruited a catholic church to help in collection and distribution to the local homeless, seven days a week. He did this when he was eleven, five years before he first considered having a life in politics.

The idea of politics was suggested to him by his high school friend Jesse Piccolino, and seemed downright foreign when he first heard it. Adam didn’t want to be a politician, he just wanted to help people. Jesse merely raised an eyebrow in response to that, and Adam then saw the calling on his life unfold before him. All of the tumblers fell into place, and so much of what gave him satisfaction was seen in a new light.

Chambers rose steadily in recognition and office during the thirty years between his first bid for city council, and his swearing in as President the previous year. He didn’t really consider running for President until a number of colleagues approached him in confidence, as the previous administration became less interesting to the media, and several contenders had already announced their run for office.

It seemed like a long shot, when he was first approached, but he had developed a history of upending odds and connecting with voters on a level that was more impassioned, and more eagerly supported than even the best funded competition could deal with, at least until that point.

The ensuing drama was long (and it felt a lot longer). It was also very emotionally draining. His primary opponents used every trick they had on him, and nothing stuck.

His main election opponent, Henry West, did his best to falsify a skeleton in Adam’s closet, and was discovered by the media less than a month before the main election took place.

While the attention span of American citizens had been shrinking for decades, there just wasn’t enough time for West to regroup and regain the ground lost by his shenanigans. The landslide victory that Chambers enjoyed was a new record in American politics, and reinforced his philosophy that when the going gets dirty, the good remain pure.

President Chambers read his speech once again. Checking off the main points to himself: the virus was most likely non-lethal, it was less contagious than previously feared, the curfew was to be partially lifted (with travel allowed immediately, and businesses to reopen the following morning), so that healthy citizens could return to their daily routines, and tax rebates would reflect the lost wages of every taxpayer in the next cycle for the two days of lost labor.

The idea to pad tax rebates was the icing on the relief cake, which would hopefully spur consumer spending in the next weeks enough to make up for the loss of GDP that the shutdown caused. It was entirely conditional on the idea that the virus was, in fact, non-lethal. If it turned out to be lethal, Chambers had no idea about what he would do to handle it.

And that was the source of his disquiet. That was the idea that kept itching his soul, and making him feel like a liar while he recited words of encouragement which he would speak to the entire nation in less than an hour.

The words, the sentiment, the intel: it all felt dirty somehow. But it wasn’t. The message of hope he had to report was an honest and accurate assessment of observations made by both the CDC and the military. He knew that, but it still seemed too good to be true. He just had to deal with that sense of unease and press onward.

At 7pm President Chambers delivered his address, explaining the plan forward, and enacting a lifting of the curfew for all healthy citizens. The sense of relief delivered by his words reverberated across the entire nation.

Patrick peeked his head in to say goodbye to his mom, who watched the speech from her room and was crying tears of relief. After a blubbery exchange, he got in the van, and picked up a call from Reggie as he was backing out.

“You on the way?” Reggie asked. He sounded like he was dealing with his own cabin fever.

“Yeah, just starting now. I’ll see you in a few minutes,” Patrick noticed several other cars pulling out of their driveways. Even though there were no stores open until the next morning, it made sense that some people felt compelled to get out of their houses after the past few days.

Doing his best Bruce Campbell voice, Reggie replied, “Groovy. Do you need any spare gas?”

Patrick felt like a general in a survivalism army for a moment. He let that feeling ride. “Yeah, bring what you’ve got, just in case. I’ve got a full tank, but I don’t know how long that will last. We can’t buy anything until tomorrow, so we should figure out food for tonight. I’ve got some stuff at my place that we could grab. If you’ve got a cooler and ice, make sure to bring it.”

“You got it. I’ll see ya, buddy,” Reggie hung up.

Even though the sun was hanging low in a heavy blanket of clouds, Patrick found himself smiling up at the sky as he navigated out of the neighborhood, enjoying the openness of it all.

Chapter 4: Daylight Falls

 

The morning after the curfew lifted was busy. Thousands of distribution lines were brought back with a sense of urgency and zest. Truckers who had been working too many hours for years suddenly hit the road equally rested and in high demand.

The business world was rebooted with a similar sense of eagerness. Although a full third of the workforce of every industry were still under quarantine, there was a universal sense of optimism that came with the sunrise.

Traffic ran smoother that morning than ever before, and every healthy worker felt like they had a new lease on life. The wave of enthusiastic workers spilled over into malls and stores early that evening, causing a healthy spike in consumer spending.   

Everything that President Chambers had dared to dream would happen in the aftermath of his speech did. At least at first.

Caught in the updraft of hope that he had helped create, Adam Chambers woke about forty minutes before the sunrise that morning, and decided to start his day out in the gym. The one secret service agent stationed outside his room followed a respectful distance behind, allowing Chambers to maintain the illusion of being alone as best he could.

Chambers went through a routine that was equal parts familiar and rusty. He started with cardio, then moved on to weights, and finished with yoga. It was a pattern he first established a few decades earlier, but in the past few years had found less and less time to maintain. It seemed fitting that since the world was being given a second chance, that he should extend the same hand to his own health. He also missed the endorphins. As smooth as everything seemed to be unfolding, the stress of the past week was tremendous; he hoped to sweat some of that out.

He was drawn out of his thoughts at the end of the yoga phase by the door swinging open partially.

His wife, Annie, peeked in. Still in her pajamas, and looking groggy, “There you are. I looked all over. Want some breakfast?”

Adam smiled at her and nodded. As he approached, he caught a strong whiff of himself, and decided against the hug he was planning. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen. Just let me clean up first.”

Her smile told him how much she understood that she had just dodged a sweaty bullet, but probably wouldn’t have minded it too much. “French toast and bacon?” she asked with a breathy voice she usually reserved for late night.

“Yes, please,” he said, feeling simply happy at a level he once knew well, but had since forgotten. Even when he won the election, and was later sworn in, the happiness he felt was complicated by exhausted relief. The pressure of daily responsibilities; the consequences of growing older were subtle in how they first crept in, and then took over the person he had once been. Replacing daring with doubt, hope with determination, joy with satisfaction.

After showering, Chambers headed up to the family kitchen, which was established during the Clinton administration as a place for the presidential family to sit down over a small table and have a normal breakfast, or occasional dinner. There had been other rooms with a similar purpose throughout the history of the building, but this one had stayed unaltered since then. Every Commander-in-Chief has fully understood the value of a bit of privacy after being sworn in.

He walked in to the smell of cinnamon and grease, which only made him smile wider. Annie was just finishing up on the stove. He paused to admire her blonde waves and firm figure for a moment before sitting down.

Their son, Daniel, was nose deep in a book as usual, turning a page once every minute or so. He had just turned twelve. Their daughter, Abigail, was in California starting on her law degree. She stayed in contact throughout the crisis and was under the careful watch of the Secret Service since leaving for school.

Chambers didn’t like her being so far away, but also knew that it was important for her to pursue her dreams. He’d almost ordered her to fly home a few times already but, with the constant guidance of his wife combined with the recent uptick of good news, had restrained himself.

The family ate and talked and drank coffee for a good thirty minutes before hearing a knock on the door. Chambers stood, knowing it was time to get down to business.

He opened the door to see Hector, looking well-rested. Hector sounded like he’d also started the day with a strong cup of coffee. “Good morning sir, I hope I didn’t cut your breakfast short.”

After nodding goodbye to his family, Chambers stepped through the door and shook his head at Hector, reassuring him as he often did. “Actually we got an early start today. I’m all yours.”

“Good to hear, sir. For starters, the Treasury department and IRS are able to cut the promised rebates within the next week, which would bring a lot of buying confidence back to the economy.”

The two maintained a quick pace as they talked. “Do we have enough surplus in the current budget to go ahead with it?” Chambers asked.

“Treasury says we do, but we’ve yet to hear back from Congressional leadership on the matter. We’re not expecting resistance on the issue, however. Several have already tweeted their support, and they are slated as the first meeting of the day.”

The two walked further away from the nook of normalcy, and toward the beehive of activity surrounding the Oval Office. As they navigated, Hector briefed him on other meetings that were planned throughout the day.

Chambers wished a number of staff a good morning as he made his way to the Oval Office, where the President’s Daily Briefing would be awaiting his arrival. The PDB was a daily security briefing compiled by the Director of National Intelligence, Nathan Samuels. It contained a daily report of the CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, and numerous other intelligence agencies.

These organizations had remained operational during the curfew, naturally, under the stipulation that the chosen workers remain in their office buildings for the duration of the curfew. Agents with families who didn’t have a previously established alibi were allowed to go home in order to maintain their cover, but even with a barebones crew the Intelligence community was kept running.

The day was packed with meetings, phone calls, and briefings.

As the sun began to set, and President Chambers hung up the phone on his final scheduled call of the day, he sat back and admired the view. It had been a hectic, but very productive day. The faith of the American people had been restored, and Chambers finally found himself considering the benefits of what had been unfolding for the past several days.

Seconds later, the phone rang. He saw that it was Dr. Stephens. They had spoken four times so far, mostly to confirm that the patients were still recovering.

Chambers knew something was wrong as soon as he put the phone to his ear. She was crying. In the two years of working together he had never heard her cry. People who get paid to be around death and disease aren’t generally phased by much. He felt a sense of dread spring up within him, like a Jack-in-the-box that had been waiting for the final crank of the handle. “Amanda? What’s wrong?”

“They’re gone, sir…both patients…they’re dead.” Her words were choked up in sobs, but he heard them loud and clear.

“Hold on,”  Chambers fought a wave of dizziness as the implications of the news washed over him, “Take a deep breath, and then tell me exactly what happened.”

“An hour ago they were just fine, their symptoms were weakening, they were joking with doctors. They were fine, dammit!” Her voice cracked at the last word and she took a deep breath before continuing.

“Ten minutes ago, the alarm goes off and we all rush to their room. Both patients are on the floor next to their beds, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Th-the attending doctors did what they could but after less than a minute they were both dead. Just like that. They-” Sobs cut off whatever else she planned to say.

Feeling calm, but very distant; almost as if he were outside of his body and operating his hands and mouth like a puppeteer, he heard himself say, “Dr. Stephens, get ahold of yourself. We have made it this far, so let’s not fall apart just yet. I need you to get an autopsy on those patients right away, and let me know what you find as soon as the results are in, ok?”

“Of course,” she replied, no longer sobbing, but still catching her breath. “They were sent down to autopsy right before I called. We should have the results within the next hour or so, at least most of them.”

As she spoke, her voice grew stronger, more focused on the problem at hand, “But we’re too late already. The virus is fatal. Both patients died in the exact same way, at the same time. There’s just no way that we can figure out a cure in time to save those who are lagging behind the first wave. We have verified that all who are currently infected were infected within the first three days of the viral outbreak. It’s too sudden, we’re nowhere near where we need to be in research to fight this thing. There’s always hope that the autopsy will give us a lead, but three days is pushing it to discover a cure, mass-produce it, and then distribute it. The window is too small, and we’re too far behind.”

As she spoke, Chambers was swept away with a number of thoughts inspired by her revelation. Most of them were considering the impact, his next moves, how much worse it would have been if the disease turned out to be every bit as contagious as they had once feared. From the chaos of ideas emerged one that was cold, unfamiliar, and distinct. Maybe it’s for the best.

Population control had been a problem facing humanity with no viable solutions for decades. The more wars humanity had to bring those numbers down, the more babies we made to bring them right back up and above whatever life had been lost. Advances in medical science kept bringing the mortality rate down, while no concrete plan was devised to deal with the added pressure on resources, land and wealth distribution, or other aspects of a good quality of life. If a third of people everywhere just suddenly dropped dead, and were somehow not contagious, the world as a whole would be granted a savage and unexpected reprieve of many ecological pressures brought upon by such a large and healthy population.

All of these thoughts converged on the president within the span of seconds. He felt lightheaded and noticed his hands were shaking. How could he think like that even for a second? Was he becoming as disconnected and self-serving as the rest of the political establishment?

He had just given the all-clear the previous night and felt that issuing a statement at this hour would be fruitless. He dreaded the idea of addressing the nation with this news. It would be best to wait until morning to have a fully formulated path forward to share with the American people.

“Dr. Stephens, I am sorry that you had to experience this trauma first-hand. Please let me know what is found in their autopsies as soon as you can. One way or another, we’re going to keep this country running, and your sacrifices and work have been a crucial component to that effort. I am grateful for your service.”

A few seconds passed, where all he could hear was jagged, rhythmic breathing.

“Thank you, sir. We’ll keep doing everything we can. When will you inform the public, sir?”

Chambers reconsidered his earlier resolve. After a moment of true contemplation, he understood that he should say something, as soon as possible, about this development. Waiting until morning would be a very bad move. He wasn’t thinking very clearly, and knew it was going to be a long night ahead.

“I will give a brief announcement tonight, but plan to have a more concrete strategy by the morning. We knew something like this might happen since the whole mess started. But hey, at least we now know that the infection isn’t as contagious as we thought. That is a big win in the long run. Keep that in mind, alright? And let me know as soon as the autopsy is finished. I’ll need whatever I can get before morning.”

Dr. Stephens sounded a bit calmer by this point, “Yes sir. Expect another call in a few hours. I’ll be monitoring the autopsy myself.”

“Thank you Dr. Stephens. You did everything you could, and you have been very helpful so far. I’ll make sure the American people know that. Keep up the good work.”

Chambers hung up and left his office to grab a quick bite to eat while planning out a last minute televised address. He made one phone call to get the ball rolling, and then called Annie to let her know plans had changed and it was going to be a late night.

Dr. Stephens headed down to monitor the autopsy. She had allowed herself a few moments to align her mind with the unexpected dynamic of recent developments. She felt a resolute strength grow within her during that time, and left her office with a sense of determination she felt had been lost forever mere minutes earlier.

As she walked up to the viewing room, Dr. Beltross, their lead Medical Examiner, was opening up the chest cavity of Bob Unger. The other patient, Dwayne Walton, was laying on the table next to them; organs already scooped out. Two canaries in the coal mine, laid out on slabs and representing the fate of hundreds of millions of people. Some had already experienced that fate, she thought, for others it was imminent.

All those people dying right now, and here she was helplessly watching an autopsy that may or may not provide the first clue about whatever the hell the plague was. She hadn’t slept a full night in almost a week, even the past night, when everything was fine and dandy and things were supposed to go back to normal. She woke up after four hours and spent another hour tossing and turning before dozing off again. Her mind was racing and stuttering at the same time, screaming for rest, demanding more than four hours or two hours or twenty minutes at a time.

She had to stay up at least long enough to give the president the autopsy observations, but she debated nodding off in her chair until then. She couldn’t see straight. Her mind was playing tricks on her.

At that moment, as if to confirm her exhaustion, Dr. Stephens saw the hand of Bob Unger, poor dead Bob, twitch.

Chapter 5: Beach Trip

 

The morning after the curfew lifted was foggy, at least on the beach of Hatteras Island. Patrick, Reggie and Kayla woke up before dawn so that they could break down their semi-legal campsite under cover of darkness. They worked quickly, using moonlight to their advantage so as not to draw attention to themselves. Kayla, who had thought to bring her night-vision goggles, was finished first. She offered them to Reggie and Patrick, but they were too stubborn to accept and managed fine under limited light.

Kayla was awkward, but brilliant. She was frank, insightful, very funny at times, nearly six-foot-tall and well-fed with sharp eyes that constantly examined the world through her thick glasses. Patrick could stand to lose a few pounds himself but concealed a good amount of muscle under the padded layer of bad snacking habits. Reggie was the fittest of their friendship group, with a slight beer gut brought about by a life of passionate drinking coupled with passionate martial arts training.

Patrick and Reggie had known each other since middle school. When they first met Kayla in high school, they had no idea that she would become one of their closest friends. Once their shared love of Bruce Campbell and George Romero was discovered, she transformed from the quiet background girl they knew her as, to the uber-fan of zombies and RPGs that she really was. Kayla loved to tinker, loved fixing cars, and was always incredibly resourceful. She was the kind of friend everyone needs, but not everyone has.

The night held on as they hiked back to the van. There was no activity in the parking lot, which was just fine with them. Police interference would complicate their journey, since their vehicle contained a couple of large trunks filled with Reggie’s favorite weapons and lots of other questionable supplies.

They loaded up without incident, and drove up to the ferry entrance with ten minutes to spare, first in line for the 6:00 boat to Ocracoke Island, where Dez was waiting for them.

Dez had gone to Ocracoke four days earlier, to take care of his uncle who had gotten sick. Dez was a hippie, not to be confused with a hipster. He was a free spirit bounding with constant joy at the very idea that he existed in the first place. His uncle Greg was a real hippie, now in the twilight of his life. The two had always been very close.

Eric, the fifth member of their friendship circle, was sick. When they arrived at his house to check on him he seemed to be recovering, but wasn’t quite up to join them on their adventure to the beach. He wished them well and promised to drive out there in a few days when he was fully recovered. Eric, like Kayla and Dez, had joined the circle in high school, and had stayed close for the ten years since. They all still played games together, went to cons together, spent their weekends together, even long after graduating. Two of them went to college and finished in that time, the other three took different paths; but they all stayed local, and stayed in touch. Even as all their other friends drifted off to other places and other lives, these five stayed where and how they were, together, for better or for worse.

The gate to the first ferry opened at five minutes before six. There were a dozen cars behind them by the time the gates opened and they drove on deck, heading towards the front of the boat. As they got out and went to the upper deck, more cars and trucks joined in to fill the ferry up a few more rows at least. Two minutes later they were underway and watched the waves and seagulls dance their morning ritual.

Dez was waiting for them when they disembarked. He wore a big smile, with a tent slung over his shoulder and his bike propped up beside him. Patrick navigated away from the flow of traffic, and met him with a hug seconds later.

Dez beamed, “I’m so glad to see you guys! This is gonna be a blast. I camped out by the dock so I could be here early enough. I thought about takin’ the ferry boat myself last night to scoop you up, but I’d never hear the end of it from Greg if I did anything crazy again. He’s still on edge because of that thing with the lighthouse from, like, three years ago! He’d never let me come back if I lifted the ferry, even if I brought it back. Let’s get to the house first, but I can’t wait to show you the spot we’re gonna camp at. You’ll love it. I’m serious, you are gonna flip out tonight.”

After adding Dez’s bike to the already crowded rack, they all piled into the van and drove down NC 12: the one main road that connected their ferry port to the village at the other end of the island. They admired the handful of wild horses they saw along the way, and made it to Uncle Greg’s house within minutes.

Dez told them to grab their tents and follow him down the beach. After a half-mile or so they came across a grove of trees in the sand, where he stopped with a grand wave and a shout of, “Ta Da!”.

The spot was out of sight of NC 12, thanks to a few dunes separating it from the road. It was also a few feet higher than the rest of the beach, which would prove useful during high tide. It was far enough away from the village where they didn’t have to worry about noise, but close enough to Greg’s house that they could get to a bathroom without too much trouble. It was perfect.

Their camp was set up within a half hour, at which point they began walking back to the village. They needed to get supplies next. Dez brought them his favorite spot: The Variety Store, a village-sized shop with a limited but varied selection of goods as well as cheap ice and firewood.

Patrick bought an assortment of basic camping supplies. Reggie cleaned out their selection of canned goods, jerky, and toilet paper on a separate ticket. Patrick knew that Reggie would be the last of them to go from full alert mode to a more normal state of mind, and said nothing. The cashier made little fuss, other than mentioning how fortunate it was that the next truck delivery was due any minute.

After they loaded up the van and made their way back to the campsite they decided to swim. The water was warm and inviting, and the sun beamed down on them in encouragement. They remained in the water for several hours, playing and snorkeling, before coming back to shore and laying out in the sand.

As the sun crept closer to the horizon, Dez suggested they make one last trip to the house before settling down.

When they arrived at the house, he asked them to stay outside while he got them some refreshments. Dez smiled enigmatically before going up to the house. Patrick thought nothing of the grin and decided to call his mom while they still had reception. She was feeling better than ever, and happy to hear that they had made it there safe.

After a couple of minutes, Dez came back out with four glasses of lemonade on a tray. “This is gonna hit the spot, you guys. Let me tell ya, I ain’t doling out no Country Time here. You are all about to experience some genuine, natural, made from scratch southern lemonade. Enjoy.”

Dez handed Kayla a glass, and then offered the tray to Patrick and Reggie.

The drinks were gone within seconds. Sucking sounds emerged from the four straws as they reached the bottom of their glasses. Patrick burped before declaring, “I have never had lemonade this good. I feel shafted by my entire understanding of what lemonade can and should be until now. You were so right, man.”

Dez smiled over his own empty glass, “I know, right? Uncle Greg taught me how to make it.” He grinned even wider before continuing, “But that’s not the best part. The best part is that we are going to trip our faces off tonight, because this here lemonade has been enhanced with the powers of LSD!”

Reggie choked on his last sip, coughing sharply before he could manage to say, “Excuse me?”

Patrick and Kayla both stared down their straws as if they were gun barrels. Kayla spoke up next, not quite low enough to be considered a whisper, “But I’ve never taken LSD.”

Dez held up his hand, “I thought about that, which is why I didn’t drop into yours. I’m going to leave it up to you if you want to join us tonight on our interstellar journey. If you want to just trip sit, that’s fine. But I am more than happy to give you a drop right now,” turning to Reggie and Patrick, his grin returned even wider, “I’m so excited. This’ll be just like that summer mountain trip we took a few years ago.”

Patrick felt his heart rate grow as he listened. He had taken acid before, mostly in high school and a couple of times after, but it had been awhile, and he had never taken liquid. Was a drop two hits? Four hits? Considering LSD becomes active in micrometer doses, a drop seemed like a lot. “How many hits?” he asked.

Dez looked up and to the left, “About two, give or take. I’m not too sure. Enough. Let’s leave it at that. I tried this acid earlier in the week, and y’all are gonna love it.” Dez sounded so pleased with himself.

Reggie, whose face had grown more and more red since he choked on the lemonade, finally spoke again, “Are you fucking kidding me, Dez? Tell me you’re joking, because if you’re serious that is some goddamn messed up MK Ultra shit you just pulled on us, and I for one am giving serious thought to beating the stupid right out of you here and now.” Reggie advanced on Dez until he was suddenly holding his friend by the collar, “You didn’t happen to think about just how messed up it is to drug us without our consent? While we’re all barely coming up for air from an event that still may lead to the end of the world? Are. You. Kidding. Me?!”

Patrick stepped in between them and used his arms to split up Reggie and Dez before the situation got even more out of hand, “Alright guys, let’s all take a breath and calm down for a minute. We don’t want this to get ugly, especially if we’re going to be tripping soon. Let’s talk this through first. Dez, look at me. Is this a joke?”

Dez was no longer smiling. His face revealed that he had just come to understand Reggie’s point of view, at least a bit. “Nah. Shit, man I’m sorry you guys, really. I just wanted to surprise you. I mean c’mon Reggie, you told me that Patrick was talkin’ about how this had to be like any normal camping trip, or whatever. Well, don’t we drink and do drugs on camping trips?! I mean, that’s just part of the ritual, right?”

“We smoke pot!” Reggie screamed, staying put, but clearly still unhappy, “We chug beer, dammit. We don’t spike the drinks of our friends with fucking hallucinogens!”

“We’ve camped on mushrooms plenty of times,” Dez countered, which Patrick thought wasn’t the best approach.

Reggie shot right back, “Well what about the fucking plague, man? Don’t you think that all of us having relatives at death’s door might, I dunno, mess with our heads?!”

Dez shrugged, still defensive but faltering. He had no comeback.

Patrick chimed in, “Dez, we all knew that we were eating mushrooms back then. It’s been a few years since we last did that anyway. You should’ve asked us if we wanted to trip, not spiked our drinks and told us after the fact.” He looked Dez square in the eye as he spoke, hoping for a breakthrough.

Dez looked down before responding, “I know. I wasn’t thinking like that. I was thinking you’d be surprised by this stuff I got. I really think you guys will like it. Alright? I messed up, ok? Man I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. But hey, maybe this is just the ticket we need though, I mean after what’s been happening lately, you know? We’ve got our camp all set out. We can get as loud as we want, sit around the fire and swim under the stars. That’s what I was thinking! All the stuff you pointed out, yeah it makes sense, but I just didn’t think about it like that.” By the time he finished, his eyes were wet with imminent tears, which caused Reggie to soften behind Patrick’s hand.

Reggie forced himself to speak in a calmer tone, “Hey man, you’re ok. That really was the absolute worst way you could have introduced acid to the conversation, but I get it. You are an asshole by accident. We all get that honor from time to time. It’s cool, ok? I’m calm.”

With a sigh and a shrug, Reggie continued, “I mean, I like a good trip every now and then. But we’ve really got to figure out right now how to keep ourselves from getting into my weapons later on.”

Kayla chimed in, “I could keep the keys. I’m going to stay straight tonight you guys. I mean, somebody has to keep an eye on you. Thanks for offering though Dez, you big goof.” Kayla and Dez exchanged smiles.

Reggie shook his head, “Sorry, but I know me, and once you fall asleep those keys will be open season. Not good enough.”

Dez brightened, “Oh hey, how about we lock up the van, and I stash the keys in my uncle’s room until morning? That way we won’t even be tempted.”

Patrick considered this and nodded, partly in agreement to Dez’s idea, and partly in acceptance that he would be tripping in less than an hour, “Alright. Dez, seriously, don’t ever pull a stunt like that again. Reggie, let’s get whatever we might need from the van and stash the keys. We should get back to camp and start a fire as soon as possible.”

They all gave the van a once-over before locking it up and letting Dez go to the house to stash the keys.

He emerged a few minutes later, talking as they made their way back down the beach, “Uncle Greg is watching TV in the livingroom. I haven’t seen him leave his bed except to use the toilet all week. He looks better too. I’m so glad this is going to blow over soon.”

The sun dropped closer to the horizon, casting an orange glow on their campsite ahead. Patrick found himself looking at birds, clouds, and trees with one question repeating in his mind: am I feeling it yet?

So far, so good. No shimmers or waves yet. But there was an eager ball in the pit of his stomach that warmed his body, an anticipation he hadn’t felt since just before his last psychedelic journey.

Now that the initial shock had worn off, he found himself looking forward to tripping acid on the beach. He glanced over and saw that Reggie was actually smiling, his face showing nothing of the rage and violation he expressed a few minutes ago. As much of a bonehead move as Dez had pulled, he was still their friend. And they had a great reason and place to celebrate. All was going to be well, President Chambers himself had said so.

They arrived back at camp roughly twenty minutes after drinking the lemonade, and spent the rest of the sunset building a fire and cooking dinner. By the time they sat down to eat, the sun was sinking into the inlet. They were all definitely feeling it. They sat in silence, chewing loudly and relishing their steaks and corn on the cob, washing it all down with cold beer. The sound of waves crashing on the shore mixed with the occasional cry of seagulls. They watched the last of the sunset while smelling the ocean air and chewing their food. All senses were simultaneously stimulated. Even Kayla, who wasn’t coming up, was hypnotized by the moment.

It was bound to be an interesting night.

 

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