Monday, May 16, 2011

FICTION: After by Stephen Book

The knock came louder this time.
Inside, crouched by the wall out of view, Chris held the Sig Sauer against his chest and squeezed the grip, careful to keep his index finger off the trigger. One accidental round and he’d have more armed men staring him down than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And there was no need to press his luck now; he’d been lucky enough just to grab the gun and hunker down before the first knock came.
“Yo,” a voice outside said. “Anybody in there, you need to open up now, by order of the Department of Homeland Security.”
On the floor a collage of shattered glass and splintered picture frames, the remains of what once had been his life, now lay everywhere--a mess, sure, but Chris didn’t care. Janna was gone.
The man outside called for help.
On the television, the morning news anchor looked more haggard than the day before. His voice sounded weary. “We’re now live in New York City where Denise Moller tells us what is happening there. Denise…”
The screen cut to a woman holding a microphone with one hand, the other pressed to her left ear. Times Square loomed in the background. Her hair and makeup were done, her business suit pressed, but her eyes held the same hollowness Chris had seen from everyone else.
“Yes, Tom,” she said. “We’re here at the scene of what can only be described as both gruesome and bizarre. And yet this morning we find that what we’re looking at is not unusual…”
Outside the door, Chris heard a second voice.
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“I’m about to go in,” the first one said, “and I want someone to go with me.”
“It’s five o’clock, man, can’t you see that?”
On screen, the woman reporter started walking. The view shook violently as the unseen camera man followed.
“And right here,” she said, “a group of ladies now lay, their bodies bloated, their flesh sickening black with decay. A surviving witness said they all came for a holiday weekend together…”
Outside, the first man spoke again.
“Just one more.”
A shadow filled the sunlit square on the floor, and Chris squeezed hard on the grip of the Sig.
“No,” the second man said.
“C’mon nothing. Ain’t no overtime now, Carl. Five o’clock hits, everyone calls it a day, that’s the way it is. Besides, look around, man, ain’t nobody been in this neighborhood for a while.”
Chris turned his head, trying to hear what would happen next. If he had to use the gun, he would, no question.
A moment later, the first man said, “All right, but tomorrow morning, we do this one first thing.”
“Whatever, man.”
After that, Chris only heard the television, the woman on the screen covering her mouth with a hand.
Chris slowly lifted up, peeked through the front window, and took a deep breath. The porch and sidewalk were clear.
Across the street, a red X covered the Winchell’s front door. The strange men in the hazmat suits were spray painting the door of every affected house, what they had called Stage One of their loosely organized plan, the bodies to be removed in Stage Two.
Stepping across the living room, Chris picked up the remote and muted the television. He couldn’t stand another minute of it. Not right now. It was the same thing on every major news channel, even on CNBC where the Squawk Box panel discussed the financial implications around the world, a ticker strip at the top of screen tracking nothing as the SEC had shut the stock market down shortly after everything happened.
In the kitchen, he laid the gun down and grabbed his drink. Broken glass littered the floor. Glancing down, he caught sight of a picture from Colorado, the summer he and Janna took a trip from Durango to Silverton through Molas Pass. She had called it an example of God’s majesty.
“Funny,” he said. “In order to reach God’s majesty, you have to bypass Purgatory.” Speaking of the ski resort.
Janna didn’t laugh.
The memory brought tears to his eyes. Chris fought them off.
On the television, the President stood behind a lectern. President meets with religious leaders and scientists, the ticker read from the bottom of the screen.
“This ought to be good,” Chris said. He made his way back toward the couch and grabbed the remote.
“…to advise people to remain calm,” the President said. “As best as we can figure, this… event is the result of a virus, or at the worst a bio-terrorism attack, and not, as some have suggested, a matter of superstitious belief.”
“Good one, Mr. President,” Chris said.
The television screen went black as Chris turned off the only company he’d had these last few days. He tossed the remote back to the table.
A virus or a bio-terrorism attack, is that what the Administration had for an answer? Chris shook his head. “Well, tell us something, Mr. President. If it was a terrorist attack, then how do we have someone eye-witness a group of ladies collapsing all at once on Times Square? Or, for that matter, who has the capability to pull off such an attack against the entire world, and why? And if it’s a virus, why hasn’t the news media reported any more related deaths since? Tell us that, Mr. President.”
He peered down the darkened hallway toward the bedroom at the end. Behind the closed door, Janna lay on their bed. He hadn’t looked in on her this morning. He didn’t need to.
He stood and returned to the kitchen to pick up his gun; tomorrow, the men would return, and then he would have to use it. He looked through the kitchen doorway toward the front hallway and raised his glass in a toast.
“In sickness and in health,” he said. “At least we have one more night.”

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