“How long have you been here?” Tom asked.
“What’s the date?” asked Larry.
“November tenth,” Alex said.
“And the attack happened on the first of October, so that’s how long I’ve been here.” Larry waved the bat at the bathrooms, and for the first time, Alex saw what could only be a large stain of dried blood that had seeped into the wood. “I’ve been hanging in the ladies’ room. Cleaner than the men’s, and I found a nice couple tents, sleeping bags. There’s a caretaker’s shed about a quarter mile in, though, and now that it’s getting colder, I was thinking of moving, but …” He shrugged. “Haven’t been able to make up my mind.”
The choice between bedding down in the ladies’ room or a tent didn’t seem much of a contest to Alex, and she noticed that the nip of that scent had sharpened. What was that odor? A mix of gun oil and cleaning solvent, she thought.
He’s lying about something. She couldn’t shake the association; for whatever reason, this combination of scents set off a bunch of alarms. Or maybe he’s just omitting some detail. But what?
“You said there’d been an attack,” Tom said. “You know this for sure? What kind?”
“All I got for sure is what my eyes tell me and what other people say, know what I mean? EMPs is what I heard, and then I guess the cities got nuked, but some people say it was just the EMPs and then all the nuclear power plants and storage sites went up on their own. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I guarantee you it’s a mess out there. I’ve been too scared to make a move out of here.”
“What have you been living on?” Alex asked.
“What I scrounge. I had some supplies left in my pack, and there was vending machine crap in the beginning. Lucky I made it here when I did before older folks started straggling out of the woods, or there’d have been nothing left. Found this in the booth.” He held up the bat. “One of the rangers must’ve fished, too, because there was a rod. So, fish and, well, like I said, there’s a campsite maybe two miles west. I’ve been there a couple times. Bunch of tents and sleeping bags and supplies to pick through, as long as you don’t mind the bodies, and scavengers have pretty much taken care of those. I’ve been getting by.”
“Bodies?” Tom said.
“Yeah. You know, most looked to be in their thirties, forties on up. Not a lot of folks, because it’s off-season, but—”
Alex interrupted. “No, we don’t know. What are you talking about?”
“Jesus.” Larry’s myopic gaze clicked from Alex to Tom. “You kids really don’t know?”
“For God’s sake, just say it, Larry,” Tom said.
So he told them. When Larry was done, Alex felt as if she’d stepped into a kind of breathless pause. Through the roar in her ears, she heard Tom: “That can’t be right. Everyone? No exceptions?”
“Well, you two are, so there must be some. Son, I’m only telling you what I’ve heard. The rumors might be wrong, but if they are, they’re all the same wrong coming from everybody who’s been through. Now, that’s no more than thirty people, so take it with a grain of salt. But based on what I’ve seen and heard, I believe it. The people who dropped right away were, mostly, adults in their early twenties on up. There seems to be some kind of cutoff around sixty, sixty-five, but I’ll bet some really old people dropped, too. But other than me, you two, and that little girl in your truck, the youngest person I’ve seen come through here so far was sixty-six. Her husband was younger, fifty-nine, and he keeled over in the first couple of minutes.” Larry snapped his fingers. “Gone. Just like that.”
“How old are you?” Tom asked.
“Sixty-two, and still ticking, thank God.” Larry eyed Tom. “You with anyone older when it happened?”
“Two guys.” Tom swallowed. “One died right away. He was maybe forty. The other one, he’d just turned sixty-five, and he was fine after the attack. But my friend …” His voice faded.
“Young like you?”
“A few years older.”
“Close enough.” Larry’s eyes narrowed. “He changed, didn’t he? Started losing track, looking lost?”
Tom gave a reluctant nod. “Then he got … he went crazy.”
“He went wild,” Larry said flatly. “I’ll tell you what. You’re lucky he didn’t change in the first couple of minutes, or you probably wouldn’t be standing here. From what I heard, all those people passing through, kids your age and younger, they change fast.”
“But that’s just it. I haven’t changed. Alex is fine, and so is—” Tom broke off. “People panic. Those are just rumors.”
“No, wait. Larry was with a bunch of kids,” Alex said. To the older man: “I saw you at a Quik-Mart right across the Michigan border.”
“That was us,” Larry said. “I teach … taught bio. We’re on our fall and winter ecology unit: me, my daughter, eight kids from the class, and three other chaperones.” Larry’s gaze slewed sideways to fix on a spot on the ground. “Marlene, she taught chemistry. About my age. She was the only other chaperone to make it out.”
“What happened to everybody else?” asked Tom.
Larry’s eyes watered, and he swallowed, the knob of his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I just told you. You look like a smart young man. Why you think I got the bat?”
“All the kids changed,” Alex said. Her voice sounded thin and strained in her ears.
“Yeah.” Larry was blinking rapidly. “Well, not all of them at once.”
“Really?” Alex and Tom looked at each other, and then Alex said, “How many didn’t?”
“Three. A couple kids changed right away and then the others started maybe half a day later. One kid didn’t show signs for almost two days.”
“Was there any pattern?” asked Alex. “Like age or—”
“No. The first two killed Harriet … she taught advanced bio. She was early sixties, I think. Her husband, Frank, was already dead.”
“What happened then?” Tom asked.
Larry looked almost angry. “What do you think? We ran like hell, me and Marlene and the other kids. Took us a couple days to get out of the woods. The wild ones followed us and got one of the kids who hadn’t turned that very first night. It was awful, and we couldn’t … there wasn’t anything we could do.” Larry’s voice cracked. “My daughter, Deidre, was the only kid to make it out, but once we got to the bus, Marlene took off. Just scrambled on, locked the door, and drove out.” He shook his head. “That bus was so old, I probably rode it when I was a kid. That’s the only reason she was able to drive off, too. And she always said district budget cuts never did anyone a lick of good.”
“And she just left you?”
“She wouldn’t take Dee, and I wouldn’t leave without her, so.” He spread his hands. “Here I am. You’re the first young people I’ve seen pass through. I knew there had to be some left. There was just too much variability in who changed when.”
“Does anyone know why it’s happening at all?” asked Tom.
“I teach high school biology. I sure as hell don’t know. Maybe brain chemistry, or something about hormones.” Larry’s eyes slid away again, but not before Alex caught another surge of that solvent nip.
Then she had it: what he was hiding. “Larry, where’s your daughter?”
For a moment, she thought Larry would try to lie. In the end, he just looked defeated.
“This way.” Larry inclined his head toward the bathrooms. “You should probably make sure the little girl stays put.”
Well, Alex thought as her gaze roved over the handicapped stall, at least we know who took the rope from those flagpoles.
Larry had used the handicapped stall for obvious reasons. It was bigger, and there were the rails, which were handy for restraining someone. Either the girl was asleep or, more likely, unconscious, judging from the crust of blood caking the left side of the girl’s head. Her hands were bound behind her back, and more rope was looped around her middle, which Larry had then tied off around a rail.
The dead meat stink was very strong now.
“Deidre,” said Larry. His lips trembled, and he rubbed at them with one shaking hand. “She’s only thirteen. I don’t blame Marlene, I really don’t. Not after what we saw. But I couldn’t leave Dee. I only hit her the one time, when she came after me. That was enough, though. I know I can’t …” His voice firmed. “The change might not be permanent.”
Tom touched the old man’s shoulder. “How long has she been like this, Larry?”
“Out of control? Only the last four, five days, but the change started about two, three weeks ago, I guess. She started complaining about not feeling right. Lost her appetite and her mood changed and then … well, she’s a little bit of a late bloomer. That’s all I thought it was.”
The confusion was clear on Tom’s face, but Alex understood. Late bloomer. Her eyes found a battered white napkin dispenser hung from one wall, its cover open to reveal a stack of small, gray cardboard boxes. Larry must’ve broken it open. “She started her period.”
“First time. She got worse about three days after, and that was maybe a week ago.” Slow tears trickled into the deep rills on either side of Larry’s nose. “Now she’s only getting weaker. She’ll drink, but anything solid I get into her mouth, she spits out. The last couple times I got close, she’s tried to bite …” He skimmed tears from his face with the back of his hand. “Breaks my heart, you know? In some ways, she’s still kind of a typical teenager. Like always waking up just when I’m ready to sleep. She’ll stay up all night and only nod off again a couple hours after sunrise.”
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