“Have you talked to him yet?”
“No, not since he was about to turn himself in. Why?”
Carla took a deep breath, held my gaze. “There’s still an APB out on them.”
“Wait, why? He turned himself in.”
“Jack, he never did. I pulled a couple of strings. A friend who knows who’s who at the base checked it out. Your brother’s still missing.”
That hit me hard. Jesus, all this time I thought my brother was in a medical facility, or at least in custody. Where could he be?
“I’m sorry,” she offered quietly.
I wiped a hand over my face, rubbed my neck. It had been hell these past few shitty days. “Not your fault,” I said.
How was I going to tell Anna? Looking up into the heavens, I realized I might be staring at the genesis of our problem down here on our little Earth. It made me feel a little inconsequential.
“You want to come in? Maybe we can talk Anna into a game of Scrabble.” That is, I thought, before I tell her that her uncle has gone missing.
“I wish I could,” she answered. “But I’m on duty. Jack, your hand...”
“I know,” I said.
“You need to get help.”
“I will,” I said. She looked at me for a long moment. She seemed about to touch me, and paused. I wanted her to touch me, needed her to touch me.
“Good idea,” I said. “I don’t want you to get sick.”
And then she surprised the hell out of me by standing up on her tiptoes and kissing me softly on the cheek. “I’ll take my chances,” she said, whispering in my ear.
I could still feel her soft lips on my cheek as I watched her drive away.
Anna was catching up on some sleep.
Good for her. I wish I could have said the same for myself. She’d taken the news about her uncle pretty hard. I wanted to hug her, to hold her close, to reassure her that everything would be okay.
But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t risk touching her, not with my infected wound, a wound I had now doused with a few bottles of alcohol and a handful of penicillin I had swiped from the zoo’s veterinary supplies.
I was surprised to see that the wound was getting worse, the darker veins spreading over the back of my hand.
She’d finally cried herself to sleep, while I sat listening in the living room, scanning the news for anything regarding the outbreak. Nothing at all.
I opened and closed my hand. The wound burned in a way that I’d never experienced before. In a way, it seemed to be growing hotter.
I should have been terrified...but I wasn’t. I should be running to the doctor—any doctor.
But I wasn’t.
Apathy filled me. Disinterest. Fatigue. I just wanted to sit here and do...
All the while, my hand got progressively worse. All the while, I knew in my heart and soul that I had what my brother and friend had. What the people on the Internet had.
I’m sick, I thought. Infected.
And yet...and yet, I didn’t give a damn.
No, I did give a damn.
Fight it, I thought. Fight it goddammit. Do something. Anything.
I forced myself up out of the recliner. A monumental effort. I considered what to do next. I knew I needed to see a doctor. At least, I needed to head straight for the closest Center for Disease Control.
I was diseased. Very, very diseased.
Maybe it will go away. After all, Joey and Mike seemed better. They seemed alert and healthy.
Maybe, I thought. But they also seemed...different, too. At least, Joey did. I didn’t know Mike well enough to know the difference.
Joey had seemed...not entirely there. As if he were moving on auto pilot, perhaps. There but not there.
I stood there in my living room and considered what to do...and finally opted for some fresh air...but before I did, I automatically checked the gun at my hip. No, I didn’t often wear my ranger-issued Colt .45 around the house. Then again, extreme times called for extreme measures.
I headed into the back yard.
* * *
He was on the hillside above the row of beautiful homes, watching, waiting, growing hungrier...and angrier.
* * *
I inhaled the night air deeply, filling my lungs and wondered how much longer I would enjoy such deep breaths.
I’m sick, dying.
That I was sick, I now had no doubt. But dying? I didn’t know that. That I might lose my mind, well, that was another matter entirely. My brother was here, but not here. A part of him was here.
My hand burned, throbbed. I felt it slowly spreading, inching over my skin.
Where did the infection come from? Space? An alien attack? Or something that’s meant to look like an alien attack?
I didn’t know, I only knew that I was feeling simultaneously thirsty and repulsed by the thought of water. And angry. A nearby buzzing insect was working my last nerve.
It’s not me, I thought. I don’t get angry. Not that easily.
So, I stood outside and looked into the night sky, only lightly speckled with stars. Southern Californians were not privy to many stars. Too bad. The nearby koi pond, filled with fat, lumbering fish, gurgled softly.
I took in another breath, held it, and as I released it, I heard the rustling along the hillside.
* * *
Mike had no intention of leaving the Carters alone.
No, not when he caught the scent of the young one. He couldn’t remember her name, nor did he care. The young girl, Joey’s niece. The daughter of the son-of-a-bitch who had locked him up.
Park ranger or not, that motherfucker was going to pay, and he was going to pay dearly.
So, Lieutenant Commander Michael Mendoza had waited for his one-time buddy to head off in his own direction, and then Mike had circled back into the woods...and waited.
He grew hungrier and hungrier and, for reasons he no longer cared about, angrier and angrier.
* * *
It was nippy enough that I could see my breath.
It was one of those rare, super-clear nights. The moonlight gently cast silver rays on the surrounding trees and over the rugged hillside, which was crowded with spruce, cedar, firs and a dozen or more different pine species.
The rustling came again, just beyond the backyard fence. There wasn’t much beyond the fence other than a lot of woods and trails that led up to the observatory. As I well knew, all sorts of critters filled these woods, from coyotes to squirrels to skunks. I sniffed the air. Not a skunk.
Probably a cottontail, I thought.
I’d given up smoking years ago, but I sure as hell could have used one now. Just a smoke. Not a drink. For some reason, the thought of anything liquid turned my stomach. And yet...my mouth was damned dry.