Danny Mitchell’s father ruined his life. Or maybe his mom did. He really wasn’t sure which one deserved the most blame. Things in Minneapolis seemed perfect. His friends were awesome, school was actually pretty good, and he was going to ask Elena Schwartz to the junior high fall dance. Then his father died and everything changed.
“Come on, Mom. Martins Ferry? No one’s even heard of it.”
There was no mistaking the tone of his mom’s sigh. She was frustrated with his attitude, but Danny didn’t much care.
“Listen, Danny, we’ve been over this enough these last couple of weeks. Your father’s insurance policy left some money, but with the mortgage and the cost of living, it won’t last long enough to put you through college. And your father wants—wanted—you to get out of school with no debt if he could help it. Besides, Grandma and Grandpa Mitchell don’t get to see you much. And they’re going to be even lonelier with your dad gone. They’ll be good to us and it will be nice to have family support.”
Danny tended to tune this part out. No need to let her try to sway him with sympathy. If she would have plucked a violin out of thin air and started playing that sad song from one of his favorite movies, Platoon, it wouldn’t have surprised him one bit. Sometimes it really burned him up when she acted so manipulative. Sure, he practiced the fine art himself, but he was a kid and it was expected. She was a mom. Where was the understanding? Where were all the, “My poor baby,” statements she’d cried right after his dad died?
Sometimes though, during the long drive across the Midwest in the rented moving truck, he felt just the tiniest bit guilty about the hard time he’d been giving his mom ever since she announced they were going to move to the small Ohio town along the river. He could remember being there exactly one time, when he was about seven years old. He wasn’t impressed much with the town or his grandparent’s house, but then, compared to Minneapolis, Martins Ferry never stood a chance.
Once they got to Grandma and Grandpa Mitchell’s house, things took a turn for the better. Some neighborhood boys saw them moving in and came over to the truck, offering to help carry boxes and stuff in. There was Shawn O’Leary, who was pretty tall for a thirteen year old, with bright red hair, and Jacob Jones, who looked a lot like one of Danny’s friends back in Minneapolis, with brown hair and glasses. He was eleven and Danny liked him immediately. Another kid, Ryan Koteles, who was kind of small, came walking down the sidewalk about twenty minutes later, and he was pretty nice too. They all pitched in to help, and Danny’s mom and grandparents couldn’t have been any happier for the assist.
After everything was out of the truck, his grandfather pulled some money out of his wallet and gave it to Danny, telling the boys to walk down the street to the Dairy Queen and treat themselves to some nice cold drinks. They deserved it for all their hard work, he told them. Danny was happy about the chance to treat and get to know the guys, but just a little cynical, thinking maybe it was his mother’s suggestion and her way of trying to show him that things wouldn’t be so bad living in Martins Ferry. Regardless though, he realized this was now their home and he’d try to make the best of it. And going to the Dairy Queen with new friends wasn’t a bad way to start.
“Test subject is ready, Mr. Barbas.”
“Excellent. Is the chamber properly sealed?”
There was a slight hesitation in the response, and Barbas didn’t like hesitation.
“It’s sufficiently sealed, Mr. Barbas,” Captain Eberhardt said. “We believe the chance of any trace elements escaping are less than one hundredth of a percent. And besides, we have a pressurized disinfection area completely surrounding the chamber.”
“And where does Lieutenant Merritt stand on his mission?” Barbas said.
“Merritt and his team reported back at 0900 hours with four spray trucks, as requested, Mr. Barbas.”
Barbas didn’t take his eyes away from Captain Eberhardt and watched the sweat begin to drip down his forehead. He was in no rush to dismiss the captain. As a matter of fact, a delicious thought came to mind.
“Captain, I want you to send Lieutenant Merritt into my office. Then report to Dr. Ramachandran in his lab.”
“At your command, Mr. Barbas. Will I be escorting the test subject to the chamber?”
This time Barbas was the one who hesitated. Not because he didn’t know the answer to the question, but because he wanted to plant a seed of worry in Eberhardt. The captain knew what was expected of the construction of the chamber, yet he’d failed. Did the idiot even realize it? Had Barbas not told him it must be built with one hundred percent assurance no leakage could occur? During the test, if any of Dr. Ramachandran’s formula escaped, it would ruin everything.
“Just follow Dr. Ramachandran’s orders.”
“Yes, Mr. Barbas, I’ll get right on it.”
Barbas walked behind his desk and sat down to check the routes once more on his computer. Google Maps made everything easier these days. With the addition of the four spray trucks Merritt obtained this morning, their fleet was now up to nine. It really should be enough, because once the initial run took place, nature would then take its course. Five trucks would drive northeast to Pittsburgh, while four would travel west to Wheeling. Two would cover the West Virginia river city, while the other two would cross over the bridge into Ohio, one running just south to Bellaire, and the last truck going north to Martins Ferry. Three states covered in less than an hour. And he would be able to observe all of it from his headquarters in Washington. It may not be the country’s capital in D.C., but the symbolism of being in a city named Washington, even if it was in Pennsylvania, brought a big smile to his face.
A knock on his office door brought Barbas out of his reverie at once.
“Lieutenant Merritt reporting as ordered, Mr. Barbas.”
Barbas looked him over carefully. Merritt was a good-looking young fellow. His uniform was always impeccable, short haircut neatly trimmed with never a strand out of place. Eberhardt bragged about what a good, loyal soldier Merritt was. He told Barbas that the men under Merritt would follow him into a suicide mission, no questions asked. But could he obtain one hundred percent assurance of no leakage by end of day tomorrow? Barbas believed he could.
“Congratulations, Captain Merritt. You’ve just been promoted.”
“May I please be excused?”
“Danny, you hardly touched your dinner. Grandma cooked this big meal for us and we need to show our appreciation.”
Grandma Mitchell put a hand on her daughter-in-law’s wrist. “I’m not offended, Renee. I know how boys are. Raised one myself.” Danny thought his grandmother was going to start crying again, as she had when they first arrived.
But a couple of sniffles later things seemed fine, and Danny again asked if he could leave the table.
“Fine,” his mother said, “but don’t expect that I’ll allow you to go out and find those boys to play with. You still have a lot of unpacking to do in your room.”
“Hope you don’t mind the attic too much, Danny,” Grandpa said. “It was your father’s favorite room in the house. I think it’s fitting that you’ll be staying there.”
Again, Danny thought they would all break down and cry, and he’d get pulled into the middle of it and they would hug him until he couldn’t breathe. He really didn’t need that. It would be so much easier if everyone would quit talking about him and just get on with life. Then maybe the hurting would stop, at least for a little while.
Danny turned and ran down the hallway, up the first flight of stairs, into the room his mother would be living in, and opened the door to the attic stairs. It was kind of inconvenient to have to go through his mom’s room, but he figured they’d get used to it. There was a light switch at the bottom of the stairs, but none up in the attic. Until his grandpa got a switch up in the room, as he said he’d do, Danny would have to turn on a lamp at night, go down the stairs, then flick it off. He supposed it wasn’t the end of the world, but the way things kept piling up over the last few weeks, it kind of felt like it.
Boxes filled with clothes, books, and toys and games seemed to be everywhere, although most were neatly stacked against the empty walls. Earlier Grandpa came up and helped Danny put together his bed, and the neighborhood boys who helped them carry things in actually put all the right drawers in the dresser and nightstand. His mother told him to put away his clothes first, but he didn’t feel like it just yet and decided to check out an old bookshelf that had already been there.
It was crammed full of books, magazines, notebooks, fliers, maps, and all sorts of stuff that Danny wasn’t sure about. Earlier, while his grandmother was putting sheets on Danny’s bed for him, she said, “Zeke, you need to get rid of that shelf. Danny doesn’t want your old stuff in his room.”
“Where else am I going to put it? I think you’ve already banished it from every other room in the house.”
Danny looked over at his grandmother, who looked him in the eye and winked. “Then maybe it’s time to turn it over to the garbage man. I’m sure he’d find a place for all that junk.”
Not sure if it would set his grandfather off or not, Danny told them both he didn’t mind it. “As a matter of fact, it looks like there could be some hidden treasures in there.”
Grandpa started laughing, louder and louder. It was infectious and all three of them laughed until Danny’s mom came up to ask why she wasn’t invited to the party.
“You’ve got a smart, adventurous, boy there, Renee. He’s a winner in my book. Danny, you can look through any of that stuff you want, as long as you keep defending my right to keep it in the house.”
Since he was finally alone, and it was his room now, he decided to see just what sort of stuff his grandfather kept on the old shelf. The middle was filled with old Hardy Boy books, but the two shelves above were crammed with notebooks, maps, tourist flyers, and what looked like those blank journals he’d seen at stores. He pulled one out and flipped it open to a random page. Nothing. Just inside the front cover, he saw an inscription from his grandfather to his dad. But that was all. Danny chucked it to the floor. No use keeping something that his dad obviously didn’t even care about. Maybe he could convince his grandfather to get rid of some of this stuff and put his comic books here. And if all of these old journals were like the one he just looked at, it wouldn’t take long.
Danny grabbed six of them and sat on the attic floor. The one on top actually did have stuff in it. At first he found it confusing, but then realized it was a medicine log for his grandfather. Who in the world keeps a daily medicine log? Oh well, it was from ten years ago so it could be trashed too.
The one underneath it was thicker. It wasn’t as long, and it seemed to be made of leather. It was a deep brown color, with the imprint of a tree on the front. Danny flipped through it and saw that it was filled also, but definitely not with medication stuff.
“We started off playing kickball, but then ended up jumping across the orange crick. Mom told me to stay away from it, that it would make me sick or something, but as long as I can get the orange off my shoes, or pants if I fall in, then she’ll never know.”
Now this was more like it. Danny immediately realized his dad had written this, as he’d told many stories of playing in the orange crick as a boy, that it was an acid mine runoff that was in someone’s yard, and how it flowed through a tunnel under the street. His dad had said there were some really thick, strong vines running up the side and that the neighborhood kids would leap across, grab the vines, and pull themselves up. Although sometimes they wouldn’t make it or the vines would tear then they would find themselves sitting in a couple inches of nasty water that turned their pants, shoes, and hands orange.
Danny flipped to another random page.
“My Strange Change Machine might be the best toy I ever had. It makes you feel like some sort of mad scientist that can transform life!”
That was a new one for Danny. The Strange Change Machine may have been great at the time, but he never heard his dad talk about it. A quick flip through the journal revealed that every page was filled. Tears started wetting his eyes, but he didn’t care. He tried to get up and grab a Kleenex from his nightstand, but his body started shaking. It was like convulsions that he couldn’t control. Almost as if he’d just heard about his father’s death for the first time.
Yet the sorrow he was experiencing was also one of joy. This diary was a gold mine of information, an intimate connection that Danny felt was written directly from his dad to him. Organizing his room would just have to wait. After he was able to get up again, Danny went over to his bed, turned on his nightstand lamp, and spent the rest of his evening with his father.
For the most part, The Black Hand were brave and up to the task, but when confronted with one of The 88 in person, live without a net, so to speak, you could see through the cracks.
Shortly after 2100 hours, Barbas was somewhat startled by a knock on his door. Most everyone except those on guard duty were in their private quarters by this time of night.
The door opened and Captain Merritt stepped in.
Barbas didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Merritt, perhaps I was too hasty in promoting you, but with your new assignment, if I were you, I’d be getting as much sleep as I could, knowing I want to run the test tomorrow at 1600 hours.”
When Merritt didn’t flinch, Barbas knew he’d made the right choice in replacing Eberhardt. He thought he might even like this soldier. For the most part, The Black Hand were brave and up to the task, but when confronted with one of The 88 in person, live without a net, so to speak, you could see through the cracks. Not that they suffered emotional meltdowns and turned into shaking, frightened kittens, mind you. It was more subtle, like Eberhardt’s hesitation this morning, followed by sweat dripping off his face. So far Merritt was living up to his name, displaying the kind of courage Barbas would expect from an officer of The Black Hand.
“Permission to speak, Mr. Barbas.”
“The chamber can now be sealed with one hundred percent assurance of no leakage.”
“Would you stake your life on this, Captain Merritt?”
“Without hesitation, Mr. Barbas.”
Barbas treated Merritt to a rare smile. He didn’t do it often because it tended to unnerve those who saw it, but Merritt seemed to be the real deal and this was yet another way to measure the worth of the captain.
Nothing. No sign of distress, his eyes didn’t divert from Barbas’s face, and most important, they didn’t show fear. This is what he wanted in his leaders.
“Thank you for the excellent report, Captain Merritt. I’ll let Dr. Ramachandran know first thing in the morning he can run the test tomorrow afternoon, as originally scheduled. You are dismissed.”
Without another word, Merritt did an about-face and marched out of his office, pulling the door shut behind him.
“We are on schedule,” Barbas said to no one, and now allowed an even wider grin to spread from ear to ear, his face seeming to transform into something no one would mistake for human. Perhaps if Merritt were to see him now, his nerves would melt like puddles onto the floor.
“And if Ramachandran’s formula works as promised, nothing will be able to stop me.”
Sunday morning came way too early, and Danny didn’t want to wake up, even though his mother was calling him from the bottom of the attic stairs and yelling about how he needed to get eating his breakfast fast because they were going to church with grandma and grandpa. All Danny could think about were his dad’s memories of the orange crick, the cave in the hills, and the bike paths at the north end of Wheeling Island and how he and his friends enjoyed the little waves caused by passing barges when they played in the river. He didn’t want to go to church. He wanted to see the Betty Zane Cemetery, where his dad had gotten his finger nipped by a black cat on a Friday the thirteenth in October. Or explore the woods and look for crawdads and find the big barn way up on the hill.
His mom yelled again, yanking him out of dreams of living his father’s youth, and he knew it was a battle he couldn’t win. Tired as he was, it was worth staying up so late to read his father’s diary.
“We are full go at your command, Mr. Barbas. I had all the confidence in all the world that my formula was ready, and anticipated that you may want to disrupt everyone’s plans this weekend.”
It was going to be a good day. A life-changing day. And Barbas saw no reason to wait any longer. Ramachandran said he was positive the formula was ready, and Captain Merritt guaranteed there would be no leakage.
Both men were standing with Barbas outside the test chamber while Eberhardt was escorted into the room.
Barbas looked over at Merritt. This was yet another opportunity for the young captain to flinch, but he kept his resolve, and Barbas was pleased.
“Ha, I see you’re moving up the food chain, Merritt,” Eberhardt said. “Any chance I’m here just to observe, or am I still on the naughty list?”
“Indeed, Eberhardt, it’s as you fear. You’ve been demoted to test subject for your failures. Apparently, Captain Merritt is a more efficient soldier. But no more of this prattle. Put Eberhardt in the chamber and let’s see what fun Dr. Ramachandran has in store for us.”
The guards took Eberhardt by the arms and marched him into the pressurized disinfection area. At the chamber door Eberhardt put up some resistance, but it was no use, and soon it was sealed, with one hundred percent assurance of no leakage. Merritt better be right about that, Barbas thought, or I’m going to be starting from scratch. Soldiers could be replaced, but Dr. Ramachandran was both a genius and a kindred spirit where his plan was concerned.
The chamber was sealed, the pressurized disinfection area closed and sealed, and now it was time to usher in a new era. Barbas hoped the others would be jealous of what he was producing here. Time would tell.
Merritt was already watching Eberhardt on the monitors. How would he react to what was about to happen to his former leader? If Barbas were right about Merritt, this newly appointed captain would go far.
“Mr. Barbas, are you ready?”
“Take the wheel, Dr. Ramachandran.”
Ramachandran typed some commands into his tablet and Barbas could see via the monitors a thick, chunky looking gas entering the chamber. Eberhardt, in his panic, started fanning and actually blowing at the gas.
“No, please,” Eberhardt could be heard shouting. “This isn’t fair. I’ve been with you since the beginning and…”
But all he could do now was cough and wheeze as the gas began to fill up his lungs. Barbas was pleased that Merritt showed no emotion on his face. Eventually, Eberhardt fell to his knees, and try as he might to resist, soon he was on the floor, looking dead to the world.
“What next, doctor?”
“Give it an hour or two, Mr. Barbas. You might want to get a cup of coffee and enjoy the rest of your morning. If we should miss anything live, I am recording all of this.”
“And if this run is a success? How soon can you have enough ready for the spray trucks?”
Dr. Ramachandran turned away from the monitor and looked directly at Barbas. A smile on the doctor’s face told Barbas what he was hoping to hear. “We are full go at your command, Mr. Barbas. I had all the confidence in all the world that my formula was ready, and anticipated that you may want to disrupt everyone’s plans this weekend.”
Ramachandran broke out in a funny little laugh, and Barbas couldn’t help but smile at that. Even Merritt flashed his pearly whites.
“Captain Merritt, go with Dr. Ramachandran and see what he needs to get his formula hooked up to the spray trucks. The doctor also has special gear for your drivers to wear, so go ahead and select your drivers, give them the gear, and make sure all the trucks are prepared to Ramachandran’s orders. Then report back to my office at 1400 hours.”
Danny was disappointed to find out that the orange crick no longer existed. There was nothing but grass covering his father’s memories.
He’d found Shawn, Jacob, and Ryan hanging out in the alley behind his grandparent’s house when he went outside after lunch. Though the boys never saw the orange crick either, they took Danny to the yard where it once flowed.
But there were other places to explore. Danny told them about some of the things he’d read in his father’s diary, and it was unanimous that they go find the big barn on the hill, since none of them had ever been there either.
A half hour later, they found themselves, along with a girl named Riley Wakefield who’d joined the boys, climbing up the side of a hill. There was a bit of a path, so it was obvious that others had come this way before.
“Do you think we’re almost there?” Ryan said, sounding out of breath.
“I think we must be getting close,” Danny said. “My dad’s diary said that crossing the log over the stream was about the halfway point, and that was at least ten minutes ago.”
“I love this place. It’s so beautiful just walking up here. Thanks for letting me come, guys.”
It wasn’t a hard decision for Danny. Riley was really cute, although her hair was dark brown, just the opposite of the so very blonde Elena Schwartz back in Minneapolis. He’d liked Elena for the last two years. But the move to Martins Ferry closed that chapter. So when Riley asked to join, even though Shawn frowned and Ryan said no way, Danny said yes, and Jacob was cool with it.
“We’re here, guys,” Shawn said as he pushed through branches, one that sprung back and knocked Jacob in the stomach.
“Jeepers, man, you need to watch what you’re doing.”
“Sorry dude, didn’t mean to knock the lunch out of you.”
Shawn stepped back towards them and grabbed the branches and pulled them aside. “Welcome, my friends, to The Barn, our new headquarters.”
“Whatever,” Jacob said, and stepped into a big open field.
The others came through and for a few minutes they all just stood there, looking around. The barn was about a football field away from them. Behind it there were a lot of trees, and an old dirt road or driveway. Danny figured the road led to a house, but none could be seen from where they stood.
“You think anyone’s here?” Ryan said.
“I doubt it,” Jacob said. “That barn is pretty old, and there aren’t any crops here, just the huge open field. It doesn’t smell like it would if there were cows or chickens in that barn, either.”
“So let’s go find out,” Danny said, and started running towards their new headquarters.
Barbas was sitting at his desk after lunch, drinking his fourth cup of coffee for the day and going over reports on his computer when Dr. Ramachandran called him and said that if he wanted to see the changes live, he better get up to the chamber room.
On his way out the door, he ran into Captain Merritt and told him it was time. Barbas was feeling almost giddy. Almost. This was a long time coming, but once Ramachandran came on board, the project sped up exponentially. The man was a genius.
“Captain Merritt, glad you could make it too,” Ramachandran said as they came in the door. “Observe Eberhardt’s eyes. Amazing, is it not?”
For the first time since he’d been promoted, Barbas noticed a slight show of what looked like fear on Merritt’s face. But then it was over before Barbas could blink. He was still confident that Merritt was just the man he needed.
“Being exposed in a closed environment accelerated the change,” Ramachandran said. “Once the spray trucks have done their work, it will possibly take a few hours longer than this.”
“Will it affect people in their houses, or just people who are outside?”
Barbas was glad Merritt was asking questions. It showed curiosity and initiative. He needed smart soldiers in order to continue this change.
“No need to worry, Captain Merritt,” Ramachandran said. “Houses aren’t sealed nice and tight like the test chamber. It really doesn’t take much of the formula to cause the change. Exposure of any kind will begin the process. It just might take a little longer.”
“And how are we to avoid it so we can continue our work for Mr. Barbas?”
Smart way to phrase it, Barbas thought. While he’s concerned about his own body, he tries to show his dedication to me.
Ramachandran broke out in his funny little laugh. “No need to be concerned, captain. Once the formula is exposed to oxygen, it slowly starts breaking down. After an hour or so, anyone could safely walk in downtown Pittsburgh.”
“But it will be spread further by those who change, Captain Merritt,” Barbas said. “Dr. Ramachandran guarantees that no one will be immune.”
“And not to worry about us and the changed ones, captain,” Ramachandran said. “As you can see, Eberhardt’s transformation is nearly complete. And once it’s finished, his blood is the last ingredient I need. By this evening, we will all be inoculated and completely immune to the change.”
Barbas clapped his hands and both men immediately gave him their complete attention. “No need to delay this further. Unleash the spray trucks, Captain Merritt. Ramachandran, get your blood as soon as you can and start inoculating. The hour of the apocalypse is here.”
“I don’t have to jump if I don’t want to,” Ryan said.
“No you don’t, but if you aren’t going, get out of our way,” Shawn said, then grabbed the smaller boy by the arm and yanked him backwards. “Yahoo, I’m just like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos!”
The fiery redhead leaped off the hayloft into the big pile of hay underneath.
“It’s WAH-HOO, you big idiot,” Ryan said under his breath, but Danny heard him, and Ryan immediately realized it. “Please don’t tell him I said that.” There was real panic in his voice, and it sort of unnerved Danny. Shawn was the biggest one, and seemed like he might have a temper.
“It’s cool, Ryan.”
“Thanks. And my asthma has been acting up, so I probably shouldn’t jump into hay.”
Danny nodded at him as Riley went plunging into the pile below them. He understood where Ryan was coming from. Last winter he’d been harassed for a week by a bunch of kids because he wouldn’t play hockey on a frozen pond. He didn’t care how thick the ice was, he just didn’t want to take the risk. So who was he to judge Ryan?
“Come on, Mitchell, let’s see what you’ve got,” Shawn called from below, and Danny gave a quick pat on Ryan’s shoulder and jumped to the hay below.
“Hey guys, check this out.”
When the others climbed up to the hayloft, Jacob said he wanted to explore the rest of the barn. Now he came walking from the back carrying a round card table.
“There’s some chairs back there too. We can set up an office, or play cards around it. Whatever we want.”
“Awesome,” Riley said. “Where should we set up? This barn is pretty dark inside.”
“How about up here?” Ryan called from the hayloft. “There’s an opening in the side of the barn behind the haystacks up here. There’s plenty of room, and no one can see us from below.”
“Dude, now you’re thinking,” Shawn said and gave Ryan a thumbs up.
Barbas watched the progress of the spray trucks from his desk. A few hacked satellites, and soon his computer had a split screen of the unfolding events. He loved his IT crew. He reminded himself to make sure they got the rewards they deserved. Dr. Ramachandran’s inoculation being the most important. Five trucks were closing in on Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. The Steel City was in for the surprise of its life.
As for the western bound trucks, one had already taken the Elm Grove exit, and a second split off to I470. It would then go south on Route 7, across the river. The third truck would hit downtown Wheeling after it went through the tunnels, and the last would take Exit O onto Wheeling Island, then cross the Bridgeport Bridge and go north up Route 7 to Martins Ferry. With a fleet of nine, Barbas was pleased with his disbursement of the spray trucks. Once the change took place, and it was a strange change indeed, he chuckled to himself, the rest would take care of itself.
“Dang, some of these chairs are heavier than they look,” Ryan said as he tried to climb the ladder.
“Just go up a couple rungs and hand the chair up to me.”
“He’s too short, Danny,” Shawn said. “Move it, squirt, and let me handle this.”
Ryan stepped off the ladder and handed the chair to Shawn, who grabbed it and seemingly flew to the top. Maybe he was just showing off, Danny thought, but at least it’s speeding things up.
“That was the last chair,” Riley said, “so now it’s just the table.”
“No problem,” Jacob said. “It’s pretty light. I think I can handle it.”
Soon the kids were sitting around the table with plenty of light shining in, just as Ryan promised.
“You know what would be cool? If we could bring some food up here. You know, so we could have snacks when we’re having a meeting or playing cards or something.”
“That’s a pretty stupid idea, Koteles.”
Danny felt the pain he’d suffered last winter with the hockey situation rising back up to haunt him, and decided he wouldn’t let Ryan go through the same thing. Friendly banter was one thing, but from what he’d witnessed today, Shawn was totally mistreating Ryan.
“I think it’s a really great idea, Ryan, but we’d need to have something to store it in so mice wouldn’t eat it.”
“I’m with Ryan and Danny,” Jacob said. “If you don’t like it, Shawn, you don’t have to eat whatever we bring here.”
“How about a plastic cooler?”
“That would be perfect, Riley,” Danny said.
Danny glanced over and saw a smile on Ryan’s face. Shawn probably wasn’t too happy, because it seemed they typically followed his rule, but everyone should have a voice. Which gave him a great idea.
“Hey guys, I know I’m new here, and we really don’t know each other that well, but if the last two days mean anything, I consider all of you my friends. My first friends in Martins Ferry. And think about how cool this is. We have a round table, just like King Arthur did in Camelot. No one is greater than the next guy. Or girl,” Danny said, looking at Riley. “We’re like the knights of the round table.”
“Sort of ironic,” Jacob said. “You may not know this, Danny, but our school’s mascot is a knight on horseback. We’re the Martins Ferry Purple Riders.”
“Dudes,” Shawn said. “This is pretty awesome.”
A long rumble of thunder interrupted them and the brightness disappeared as dark clouds hid the sun.
“Guys, no way we make it home before the rain starts,” Ryan said.
Danny smiled. “Then I guess we’ll just hold the first meeting of the Knights of Martins Ferry while we wait out the storm.”
Merritt bent over to get a closer look at the screen. Indeed, what were once cheeks on this person that Barbas zoomed in on now looked more like a bunch of grapes bulging from his face.
It was almost dinner time, but Barbas decided to have a plate sent to his office. Things couldn’t have gone any better. The storm to the west made visibility difficult, but he focused on Pittsburgh while it rolled through Ohio and Wheeling. He knew Ramachandran wouldn’t be in the chow hall either, as he was concentrating on the inoculation. Barbas had been glued to his satellite views ever since the trucks left, with the exception of when the drivers returned. He went to the garage and congratulated each one of them after they had gone through the disinfection area that Eberhardt had thought of building. The former captain had been good for something, after all. Well, a couple things, since his blood was being used for the immunity inoculation.
A knock at his door caused Barbas to look up, and he realized that even his eyes were feeling the strain of staring at a computer screen for hours on end.
Captain Merritt walked in and came to attention in front of Barbas’s desk.
“Captain Merritt, how may I help you?”
“Mr. Barbas, I was on my way to the chow hall and some of the men wondered if there were any updates to report.”
Barbas looked back down at his screen, which was now made up into a larger series of grids covering all the areas the spray trucks had infected. “Come over on this side, Captain, and we’ll take a closer look at each area.” Barbas double clicked on the bottom right of his screen. “This is downtown Pittsburgh. You can see a lot of bodies on the street, but no movement. Funny how so many of them end up face down. But as I zoom in a little closer, you can see the change beginning on this one. That’s no longer a cheek as we would call it, is it?”
Merritt bent over to get a closer look at the screen. Indeed, what were once cheeks on this person that Barbas zoomed in on now looked more like a bunch of grapes bulging from his face.
“They remind me of a fly’s eyes.”
“Indeed,” Barbas said. “But if you said that to Dr. Ramachandran he’d be insulted and correct you that they are mosquito eyes.”
“It’s almost like a bunch of purple grapes are growing out the side of that man’s face.”
“An apt description, Captain Merritt. Except for the part about calling him a man. He really isn’t human anymore, is he?”
Merritt slowly nodded his head and kept his eyes glued to the monitor.
“Did you see Eberhardt once the change was complete?”
“No,” Merritt said. “I was too busy with my men and the spray trucks. I never made it back before Ramachandran drained his blood for the inoculation. I heard the body was liquidated for further uses. But I’ll stop in later once the real party starts, if you don’t mind, Mr. Barbas.”
“I’ll be sure to notify both you and the doctor as soon as it starts. And bring the popcorn, Captain Merritt. It should prove to be more entertaining than any movie you’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t know which is worse, the climb up or coming back down this stupid hill.”
“You cry about everything, Koteles,” Shawn said.
This time Danny wasn’t sure what to say, because he realized Shawn was sort of right. The kid did complain about everything.
“It’s just slippery because of the rain, Ryan.”
“You don’t need to stick up for him, Riley,” Shawn said. “That’s what he’s got Danny boy for.”
And here we go, Danny thought. Just when it seemed like I’d connected with these guys—and Riley—there has to be one guy in the crowd who starts in on the new kid.
“Hey,” came a shout from below them. “I’m on the road, and there are some people down here on their stomachs who aren’t moving.”
“On our way, Jacob,” Shawn said and he took off fast, with Riley right on his heels.
Danny stretched out his hand to Ryan. “Come on, I’ll help keep you from falling. Sounds like they might need us down there in a hurry.”
Once they made it to the road, Danny let go of Ryan’s hand and ran ahead to the others. “What’s wrong? Are they dead?”
“I don’t know,” Jacob said. “I mean, I really don’t want to touch them. They look sorta weird. Like grapes are growing out of their cheeks or something.”
“We have to do something,” Riley said, and ran to the closest house and started knocking on the door by the time the rest of the gang caught up with her.
“I don’t think anyone’s home,” Shawn said.
Jacob jumped off the porch and ran to the next house and started pounding away on the door.
“Everybody spread out and go to different houses until we can get someone to call an ambulance,” Riley said.
Five houses, and no one came to the door.
“Let’s go down to the next street and try,” Ryan said.
They agreed and rounded the corner of the block to head to the next street only to see even more bodies scattered all around. They were on the sidewalk, in the street, on porches, halfway out their front doors, and falling out of their cars, completely motionless and looking dead to the world. Men, women, and children. Parents and grandparents and kids.
“Holy crap, what is going on?” Ryan said, and Danny saw tears start running down the boy’s face.
“This is messed up, guys,” Jacob said. “They’ve all got those purple lumps growing out of their faces. Like insect eyes or something.”
“Do you think this is contagious? Are we infected?”
Ryan sounded like he was on the verge of falling apart, and Danny knew he wasn’t far behind the kid.
“Dudes,” Shawn said in a whisper, “we better get to our homes, and quick like.”
And the five of them immediately took off in a run down the street, dodging bodies all the way back their neighborhood.
“What are we gonna do?” Ryan wanted to know, but Danny and the others didn’t have an answer.
Once Danny had gotten to his house, he found his grandparents in the backyard. They weren’t moving or breathing and each of their faces had become two huge bunches of grape-like things. Insect eyes, Jacob had called them. Danny ran inside and looked for his mom, but didn’t see her anywhere. Finally, he opened the front door and saw her down on the sidewalk. Same condition as his grandparents.
He stood on the porch, just staring at her and several other bodies in the yards and street when he saw Jacob and Riley heading his way. Not long after, Shawn and Ryan showed up too.
Since no one was actually in Danny’s house, they decided to go inside. It was late in the day and despite the shock of what they’d seen, they were hungry so they grabbed a few bags of chips and some drinks from the kitchen and went up to Danny’s attic bedroom.
“This is sort of like that old TV show, The Twilight Zone,” Shawn said. “There was one episode where a guy found out he was the last person alive on earth, but his eyes were bad and he broke his glasses. Bad ending for him.”
Riley sighed. “Just what we needed to cheer us up, Shawn O’Leary.”
“Maybe we could call someone,” Jacob said.
“I tried calling the police,” Ryan said, “but the phone would ring and go to the answering machine every time.”
“What about TV or the radio?” Jacob said. “Maybe this is on the news?”
“The TV was on at my house, but nothing was coming in,” Shawn said. “I tried different channels, and it was a no go. It was really creepy, standing there channel surfing while my dad was on the floor with a giant grape face.”
Ryan got up and started going down the attic stairs. “Going to use your bathroom, Danny. Be back in a minute.”
“Maybe we should call the police in Wheeling,” Jacob said. “Because if—”
A scream pierced the house and Danny thought he was actually going to pass out from freight. His stomach climbed up into his throat and he couldn’t breathe. A look at the others told him he wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
Shawn was the first to his feet and raced down the stairs, followed by the rest. Ryan was standing at the window of Renee Mitchell’s bedroom, pointing down at the street, a look of sheer terror on his face. Danny couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The people they thought were dead, their parents and brothers and sisters and grandparents, were standing now. Each and every one of them were on their feet in the middle of South Zane Highway, shoulder to shoulder, as far as his eyes could see, their heads facing up toward the early evening sky.
Ryan started crying and no one knew what to say.
“I see my dad,” Riley said. She was kneeling by the window and looking south. “He’s about five houses down the street.”
“My mom…she’s right there.” Ryan had trouble choking out the words around his tears.
Danny saw his mom too. It was her hair all right, and the shirt he remembered her putting on after church, but he definitely couldn’t tell by the face alone. The insect face. Grapes. Whatever this nightmare was.
“Maybe I can help her,” Ryan said, and ran down the stairs to the first floor. Through the window, the others saw him go out to the porch and start walking towards the street. The insect people continued to look up.
“That’s a bad idea,” Shawn said. It was so monotone Danny wondered if the tough-acting redhead was in shock.
Jacob grabbed Danny and Shawn by the shoulders and started pulling them away from the windows. “Come on guys, we can’t leave him out there.”
Danny’s heart felt like it was going to burst through his chest any minute. He never knew a person could be this scared and actually live, and what he really wanted to do was go back up to his bedroom and hide under his blankets and make all this go away. Yet here he was, running out the front door after the stupid little kid who complained too much.
Ryan was standing on the sidewalk when the boys reached him.
“Come to your senses?” Shawn said. “It’s a good thing you didn’t get any closer. No telling what these things can do.”
“Don’t call them things,” Ryan said. Danny had a hard time understanding him now with all his spasmodic crying. “That’s my mom over there.”
“You’re such an idiot,” Shawn said, and Ryan, crying even louder now, ran into the street towards his mother.
“Mom,” the boy called as he got closer, and then one of them, and maybe it was his mother, as Danny wasn’t sure since he’d never met Mrs. Koteles, was no longer looking up at the sky but instead looked directly at Ryan with those bulging grape eyes and pointed at Ryan and started screaming. Danny never heard anything like it in his life and every hair on his body was standing on end. But Ryan continued toward her anyway. And like a flash Renee Mitchell’s arm reached out and grabbed Ryan, pulling him directly in front of her. Danny could see Ryan struggling to get away, but it was no use.
“Do something,” Riley said from behind them. Danny hadn’t even heard her come out of the house.
Shawn picked up a rock and hurled it towards what used to be Danny’s mom. The throw was true and it smacked the side of her head, but it didn’t seem to faze her one bit. Ryan started screaming and another one of the insect people came over and held Ryan’s arms, while Danny’s mom forced open Ryan’s mouth. Danny noticed the kids started backing up slowly and he did the same. Then his mother started making a retching noise. It got louder and louder, then stopped. Her mouth opened wide. Wider than any mouth should be able to open, and a misty gray cloud came pouring out, full of what he could only think of as chunks. And Danny kept wondering when he was going to wake up from all of this, because there was no way they could help Ryan now as the chunky gray mist continued to pour from his mom’s mouth into Ryan’s. It seemed like this was all in slow motion and happening forever, but then Ryan collapsed to his knees and fell flat on his face in the street, and Danny looked up from Ryan’s unmoving body to dozens of insect eyes aimed directly at them.
“What are we gonna do?” Shawn said as he slowly backed up.
“The barn,” Riley said. “We should head for the barn, away from the city.”
“We’ll never make it,” Jacob said. “If everyone in the city is like this, how can we get away?”
“Their arms are fast, but I think their feet are pretty slow,” Danny said.
The kids kept backing up towards the house and the insect people were moving towards them, sort of dragging their feet in a slow gait.
“Anyone have any guns? My dad has a hunting rifle. Maybe I should see if I can get to it.”
“Shawn, how can you say that?” Riley said. “I don’t think I could shoot them just knowing who they are…or were.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t have any problem pulling the trigger,” Shawn said.
Danny turned around and ran up to his porch. “I’ll meet you guys up there.”
“No,” Jacob said. “We should stick together.”
“I’ll be quick,” Danny said while going in the house, and he ran up the stairs taking two and three at a time, through his mom’s room, and running up to the attic as fast as he could. It was on the nightstand, just where he’d left it. He had moved really fast, but by the time he’d gotten back downstairs, Shawn, Riley, and Jacob had come in the door and were locking it.
“The front is no longer an option,” Jacob said.
“Let’s move, fellas,” Shawn said, and they ran down the hallway, into the kitchen, and out the back door.
“Oh crap,” Riley said.
There were some in the alley, but not many.
“Come on, we can outrun these freaks,” Shawn said, and led the way, zigzagging past the slow-footed former friends, neighbors, and relatives, being careful to stay as far away from them as possible. They’d all seen how quickly Mrs. Mitchell had grabbed Ryan.
“What was so important you risked our necks,” Jacob said, his breathing sounding more and more labored as they continued to run.
Danny held up his hand. “My dad’s diary.”
“What? Now you’re our gang’s idiot,” Shawn said.
No one was in sight and they fell into a walk as they continued to head towards the barn, all of them gasping for air. Danny couldn’t speak yet and was just glad to get some oxygen back into his lungs.
“It might help us,” Danny said as they turned left from Indiana Street onto Jefferson, making their way towards Virginia Street.
“It might help us get turned into a grape face, you mean,” Shawn said.
“No, he’s right,” Jacob said. “Danny just moved here, and he told us about the barn. We didn’t know anything about it. And now we find out there might be a cave in the hills too.”
Lights came around a corner and Riley let out a little scream.
“Get behind those bushes,” Shawn said.
The lights continued to get closer and Danny was surprised to see a car coming their way. Could these things actually drive? It was moving slowly, and Danny could see a young woman, a normal young woman, turning her head back and forth, looking frantically all around.
“That was almost as scary as if it were one of them,” Jacob said.
Then Danny felt his arm yanked viciously backward and he was on the ground before he even knew what was happening. He saw a couple large bunches of grapes and his mouth was being pried open while he heard Riley screaming his name over and over, and he couldn’t stop the chunky gray mist from going into his mouth. It made him gag at first, then he couldn’t breathe and figured he was going to drown. This was never going to end and he wished he would black out, but it just seemed to go on forever, then the mist and chunks were gone and the grapes weren’t even there and he looked to his right and saw Shawn bashing the thing’s head in over and over with a shovel. It was gross, but he couldn’t stop looking until Shawn sank to his knees.
Danny sat up and looked around. Jacob, Riley, and Shawn were looking at him strangely. He must be one of them now, and he reached up to see if he had bunches of grapes for eyes. Nothing. He stood up and they all backed away.
“How come you’re conscious?” Riley said.
“That one nailed you way worse than Ryan got it,” Jacob said. “It shot so much of that stuff into your mouth I thought I was gonna puke just watching.”
“And that’s the problem,” Shawn said. “You were just watching. We have to fight back against these things.” He looked down at the one he’d beaten with the shovel and spit on it. “Told you I’d have no problem killing these things. It’s us or them. And I bashed this one’s brains in pretty good. Insect zombies need brains just like we do, so we find some guns and shoot them in the head.”
“Jeepers,” Riley said. “It’s getting pretty dark out. If we’re going to hide in the barn for the night, we better get moving before we get lost in the dark.”
“What about him?” Shawn said, pointing his shovel at Danny. “Maybe he’s still gonna turn.”
“I think if he were going to turn, it would have happened by now. He must be immune or something.”
“I think you’re right, Jacob,” Riley said. “Come on Danny. By some miracle, you’re still with us.”
Shawn turned and spit again on the dead body. “I don’t like it, but we’ll see. Any funny moves Mitchell, and I’ll take this shovel to your head, too.”
Danny felt different, sort of sick, but not like he was going to grow insect eyes. He was so relieved that he was going with them. He would be fine. He had to be fine.
“First thing tomorrow morning,” Shawn said, “we start planning our war against the Martins Ferry insect zombies. And we can’t afford to pull our punches, no matter who they used to be.”
No one in The 88 could be having as much fun as Barbas. Of that he was positive. The damage happening around Pittsburgh nearly brought tears to his eyes. So many people kept coming into the city, and they were being changed and changed and changed. Ramachandran’s formula was truly a work of genius. He thought of the days ahead and what a joy it would be to watch it spread like wildfire. They would all be so jealous.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of movement at the top left of his screen and double clicked in the grid, enlarging it so he could see a little more action before calling it a night. Some kid was getting his lungs filled while another was whacking the changed one in the head with a shovel. When the changed one collapsed, Barbas was surprised that the kid had enough strength to do that. And the boy continued hitting away with the shovel.
“He’ll be crying soon,” Barbas said to the empty room, “once he sees what happens to his friend.”
But the kid on the monitor sat up way too soon. Something wasn’t right.
A quick check and Barbas identified the location. Martins Ferry.
Then the boy stood up. No change to his eyes either. Ramachandran guaranteed him the formula was foolproof. Guaranteed with one hundred percent assurance. What could this mean? Was it an omen?
And for the first time in his existence, Barbas was afraid.