Five minutes. Maybe ten. And Preston and I figured that the coast was clear enough for us to escape and find our way back downstairs without getting caught. As much as I wish that I could say that things were getting better and that we were safe, that this whole 'zombie infection' thing was about to blow over any day now so that things could go back to normal...
...It sounded like things were actually about to get worse. Or, best case scenario, staying the same...as nightmarish as it is. And as Preston and I looked each other in the eye...neither one of us saw any comfort or hope reflected in our innocent stare. This must be a lot more tragic than we initially though it was.
"We should get back downstairs..." I said. "Come on. I'll keep an eye out."
"What is 'air toxicity'?" Preston whispered.
"Well..." How do I say this? "...It means that the whole city of Chicago is full of dead people. Walking around, and...covered in blood and gore...and rotting on the inside. And the outside. The smell is going to be overpowering soon. We'll need to wear masks and stuff to keep from getting sick when we breathe."
"Really? Ewww!" He said, frowning up his face. "That sounds gross."
"Tell me about it." I said. "I think things are going to get a bit worse before they get better. But at least we're safe in this shelter for now. Well...until they figure out what to do about everything else."
"There's an 'everything else'?" He asked.
"Shhh...c'mon. Let's move." I said, not really wanting to answer that question. The last thing I needed right now was for Preston to start freaking out on me. We had to move and move fast while we had the opportunity. "This way!"
We scurried across the hall and rushed back to the cafeteria as quickly as we could. I didn't want us to get caught. And I certainly didn't want any soldiers asking us any questions about what happened in that freezer. I've told quite a few lies in my lifetime, but I can't say that I'm very good at it. Especially when it comes to adults. I swear they get the power to read minds once they hit their twenty first birthday. Anything that I said to them that could possibly be seen as being 'off' or 'awkward', and little Spencer could end up getting hurt. Or, at the very least, shoved into the makeshift prison that we used to call a basement with all the others.
For now, he seems just fine to me. A little on the weird side, but...life isn't what it used to be. I'd be more worried about anybody in this place that wasn't acting weird at this point.
When we got close enough to the cafeteria, I stood up straight and just started walking normally again. But I could feel Preston lightly holding on to my waist as a couple of soldiers walked by. I whispered, "Stand up!"
"But I'm hiding!" He whispered back just as fast.
"Hiding from what??? We're not supposed to be drawing attention to..." I stopped talking, just as they passed us. And even though they sort of glanced over at our suspicious behavior, I just sort of nodded at them...and they just kept walking. Then, as soon as they turned the corner, I spun around to lift Preston back up to a normal standing position. "We're fine now. Just...be normal."
"I thought I was." He said. I just shook my head and we went back to the cafeteria with everybody else.
It only took a few short seconds for my heart to stop fluttering from the fear of getting caught sneaking around, and start fluttering as I saw Alex stand up from his mat against the wall and start approaching me with a smile. "Hey..." He said.
I tried not to blush so hard, but sometimes I don't have much control over the situation. "S'up?"
"Did you guys get everything all settled in there?"
"Yeah, we cleaned it up as best as we could. I don't think anybody will catch on once the floor dries, which shouldn't take long." I said. "How is he? Is Spencer alright?"
"I got him some blankets, gave him a bit of room to stretch out...and he practically passed out the second he shut his eyes." Alex nodded his head towards the corner of the room, and sure enough, Spencer was already fast asleep, as if nothing had happened at all. And I mean it was a deep sleep too. Not just a nap, or a little snooze from a bout of random fatigue...he almost looked like he was a few short breaths away from accidentally slipping into a friggin' coma. "I thought that maybe Donovan would maybe keep an eye on him for a while, but..."
"...But Donovan's being Donovan. Yeah. Got it." I said. I could feel Preston's arm lightly resting onmy arm, just above the elbow, as he peeked around me to watch Spencer from a safe distance. He really was spooked by whatever it was that was going on with him, that's for sure. Then again...maybe I'm the one in the wrong for not being paranoid enough.
When Alex saw how frightened he was, Alex made sure to say, "I'm sure the whole incident was just some kind of...post traumatic reaction to everything that's going on out there. I mean, I'm assuming he's been through a lot. We all have. The only difference is that we got rescued and brought to this sanctuary fairly early on...before the chaos really got out of hand. Now it's our turn to take care of each other. As much as we can, anyway."
I turned my head to look back at Preston as his hand gripped my arm a bit tighter. "I dunno..." He said, quietly. "Maybe later. But for right now...trauma or not...he's giving me a bad feeling, you guys. A really bad feeling."
It was only a moment later that I saw some of the staff from the high school start setting out plates and napkins and getting things set up for our next meal. Which means that everybody started grunting and grumbling and getting back up on their feet to get in line already before it got too long for the rest of us to get our fair share. I suppose we should probably get in line too. I mean, I' not really hungry, but I know that I hadn't eaten much today since the excitement this morning. And there's nothing worse than suddenly feeling your stomach rumbling when you know you've got to get to the back of the line and maybe wait a whole hour before you're able to fix yourself a plate. Everything's cold and picked down to scraps by the time you get anywhere close to eating again.
"Maybe you should wake up Walker and Spencer and have them get in line with us." I said to Alex. "Yeah. I'm sure Donovan will meet us over here eventually. I don't even know where he wandered off to. That boy just likes to spend way too much time alone, if you ask me."
"Tell me about it." I said, and we grabbed the other two boys to come join us. It took a good minute or two to shake Spencer awake, though. He was really sleeping hard, and it was almost like he didn't want to wake up. Where as Walker was the exact opposite. Alex touched his arm lightly and he immediately jumped with a gasp, his eyes popping wide open as he seemed to feel all around himself as if he were looking for some kind of 'weapon' or something. Jesus, that boy was jumpy! "Spencer? Come on, dude...I need you to wake up, ok?"
"D-D-Dad...?" He sighed, his eyes still closed.
"It's me, dude. It's Jake. They're getting ready to serve us some food. We should get in line, ok?"
Finally, after a few more determined shakes of his shoulder, Spencer opened his eyes, and he softly whispered...
"I see angels when I sleep..."
At that moment, his eyes rolled back, and his whole body went into a series of convulsions. Spencer's waifish frame was spasming so hard that I thought I was going to have to scream out for a doctor! And then...just as quickly as it started...it stopped.
A tiny bit of foam had appeared in the corner of Spencer's mouth, and as he returned to 'normal', he wiped it away with the back of his hand, coughed a few times, and then sat up straight as though nothing had happened at all. I mean, I, at the very least, expected him to be somewhat disoriented as to what was going on or where he was...but it was like his brain had just become disjointed for about 45 seconds and then magically 'snapped' itself back into place.
I hate to say it, or even think it...
...But I'm beginning to see why Preston is so terrified about Spencer's development since we've been in contact with him.
"Are you feeling ok?" I asked him.
"I...I think so." He said, his voice being delivered with a slightly helpless and uncertain whimper. Maybe it was just my bleeding heart that reached out for him, despite the creepy nature of all of this...but Spencer just had this quality about him that felt like it needed protecting, no matter what.
"I need you to listen to me, Spencer, ok?" I said softly. "If you don't think you can make it and keep looking...'healthy', then just sit here in this corner and we'll all chip in and see if we can bring you some food back. It might not be much, but it'll be enough to keep you on your feet."
"I'm ok now, Jake. I swear." He said. "I'll be fine. I've got a bit of a cough, but that's all. I'm just really, really, tired...ok? Don't you know what it's like to be soooo tired?"
I did what I could to block out the pleading tone of his boyish voice, and I said, "Just stay right here by my side, and we'll get through this. Alright?"
Looking around, Spencer asked, "Where's my dad? Did he go through the wash up and quarantine stuff, yet? I want my daddy..."
"It's ok. From what I've heard, your dad is fine, ok?" I told him. "Just...take a moment to chill."
I stood him up, attempting to give him as much comfort as I could, considering I didn't know much more about him than he was sick and possibly a deadly threat to everybody within 'biting' range. Spencer felt so weak. Frail. Light as a feather. But somewhat 'stable' from what I could tell. So I guided him forward and we made our way out into the hallway.
However, just as the line had finished wrapping itself around the entire cafeteria...now leading out past the student lockers in the hallway...we stopped to see a few soldiers rush past us and come to an abrupt halt in front of one of their commanding officers. They stood at attention and saluted, but seemed to be a little breathless with their urgent news. "We've got incoming, Sir."
Their officer looked confused. "Incoming? What do you mean? We haven't been able to make contact with any of the last two caravans of refugees for hours now."
The other two soldiers exchanged a look, took a deep breath, and said, "They don't appear to be military, Sir. They're not a part of our rescue effort."
"So where did they come from?"
"No information on that as of yet. But they're just outside the gates. An 18-wheeler truck and a couple of mobile homes. Packed to capacity. They're asking for entry, Sir. They're looking for help." The soldier said. "They might just be a couple of well meaning citizens who were trying to help out the people in their communities. We don't know much more than that."
"They're rescues could be contaminated." The officer said. "Have they all bee checked for bites and possible infections?"
"We don't know, Sir."
"Do they have any adolescents with them that might be triggered any time soon?"
"We don't know that either, Sir."
Frustrated, he said, "Well, what DO we know about this random group of civilians that figure that they can just pop up out of nowhere and integrate themselves with the rest of our shelter's healthy population?"
Again...the soldiers exchanged a look between them. "We don't know much of anything, Sir." The other one said. "We only know that they're outside the gate. They claim to be legit. And...if I may speak candidly, Sir...it's only right that we, at least, attempt to offer them some kind of refuge. They may be some unexpected locals...but they're desperate, Sir." He said. "Are we really going to turn them away?"
The other soldier beside him said, "We can inspect every last one of them as they come in. Just like we inspected the others. Anyone with a bite or even a scratch, can be detected by our doctors, and we can lock them down HARD. Put them under immediate quarantine away from the rest of the population, and maybe even study the unpredictable effects of the virus, first hand. Just to get a better sense of what we're dealing with here."
Just then, Spencer began to cough and wheeze at my side, and I quickly thrust my hand up to cover his mouth. The soldiers turned to look at him, as well as a few people standing in line, but I did my best to avoid their eyes. Spencer is just...he needs a chance to get over whatever it was that made him sick in the first place. It doesn't mean that he's turning into a zombie like the rest of those things out there. He just needs some time to get well and maybe...lose his taste for raw meat out of the freezer. That's all.
Yeah...that probably sounds like a few heaping spoons of self denial to you too. Trust me, it sounds that way to me too. But Spencer was so little. So vulnerable. He needs to be protected. I don't know...I guess my hidden 'big brother' instincts kicked in out of nowhere, and I felt the need to suddenly shield him from any and all harm while his dad was away. Hell, I can't say that I didn't feel the same way about Preston. Or even Walker, for that matter. In times of intense and continuous life 'turbulence'...humanity finds a way to bond with one another in ways that we never thought we could. Sometimes, I wish we could do that without the massive tragedy that it takes to get us into that frame of mind. You know?
The first soldier said, "We need your order, Sir." Looking hopeful, but remaining professional when it came to his military stance. "Do we let them in? Or...do we turn them away?"
There was a long hesitation on the officer's part. He almost didn't want to say the words out loud, for fear of making a fatal mistake that would end up getting the entire shelter infected within a matter of hours. It wouldn't take much...having us become another Hillside disaster. And yet...despite his duty to the safety of everyone inside the high school...I could see the officer struggling with his humanity. That natural moral compass that keeps us all from eating each other alive. His tough exterior was beginning to crack, and with some serious hesitation, he finally said..."Get medical ready for thorough examinations of every single civilian that passes through these doors. You hear me? Don't give them any word yet. I need to clear this with Sgt. Brower before anything gets set in stone. If he says 'no'...then the answer is 'no'. Point blank, period. You got me?" The soldiers agreed. "We can't afford to slip up with things like this. I mean it. Get our best doctors ready to inspect the incoming refugees, and have armed guards on the ready for anybody who think they can barge their way in here without permission. I'm going to need you to show some authority in this situation. If they give you any backlash at all, I need you to shut that shit down...HARD! You hear me? The second they think they can run all over us...that's the second we lose control. And control is the only thing keeping us alive right now."
I could feel Spencer trembling at my side, and as his breathing got a bit more hazy, he coughed a few more times and had to press his hand to his chest to keep from collapsing. He seemed like he was really ill. Not like the average flu or anything...this was like...serious. Just hearing him cough was like listening to someone squeeze an accordion full of vanilla pudding. I think Spencer was a lot sicker than I thought he was. I mean...he was leaning on me for support, but...I began to turn my head and instinctively attempted to distance myself away from him.
I could hear his stomach gurgling with a hunger that he hadn't satisfied with his raid on the high school freezer. He felt warm, his forehead moist with perspiration...and yet he was still trembling as if he was cold. I saw his bottom lips quivering, his eyes misting over with tears...and I just...
I just didn't know if he was going to survive whatever it was that he was going through. Can I maintain any hope of saving him? Or is saving him going to create a threat for everyone in the shelter. I mean, they don't even trust the people outside the gates. How am I supposed to trust him?