It was some kind of ceremony.
There were folding chairs unfolded and set out in at least twenty lengthy and neatly aligned rows on the concrete floor. I wasn’t sure why we were there, but everyone seemed really excited about it and, so, I was, too.
There were people everywhere coupled and in groups and even some singled out looking for a couple or group to join. They chitted and chatted about I don’t know what; I couldn’t hear a word of them, there were so many voices all at once, but I know they were happy and intermittently heard laughing mixed into the babble. I grinned. Some held red Solo cups full of what-not and, others, plates with goodies stacked upon. I craned my neck and examined their bounty. It was the usual buffet fare: cubed fruits and rounded slices of meats and triangles of cheeses and spheres of melon or meatball. It was a geometric affair.
I looked about at the aluminum gray of the building’s interior and let my vision glide along the gentle curvature of the ceiling to a dulled point at the apex of the high roof. Certainly tall enough to fit a Grand Caravan, I thought, then wondered if it were large enough to fit a Caravan and a Corsair? What a sight that would be. I giggled with the inkling.
One end of the building—to the backs of the seats laid out—was a wall decorated with an abundance of paraphernalia on a plethora of shelves; certainly interesting, but too many to count. My eyes only skimmed the materials from afar and moved on to the line of hungry mouths shuffling along the length of the tables topped with bowls and platters and plates of goodies along one of the long walls. Impatient bodies at the back of the line were rubbernecking, tapping colorful paper plates against their thighs, to see what the holdup was at the front; the ones at the front dispersed, breaking from the line one by one, with full plates and the glow of accomplishment shining forth from their faces.
At the other end of the building—toward the direction the seated attendants would be facing—the doors were wide open. The BIG doors. I smiled; I loved it when the big doors were wide open. The brightness outside was such that I couldn’t see beyond except for a few feet of concrete pad. The shadow of the interior room was sharply contrasted from the blinding light of the great outdoors, as if Heaven itself were on the other side and we were in some kind of delightful, ceremonial purgatory, waiting for our diplomas to be handed to us before stepping into the Great and Infinite Beyond.
It was a fairly warm day.
Not cold, not hot; just pleasantly mild. Accompanying us was a handful of friends. Annie was wearing her usual matching top and shirt; Ben was in a collared short-sleeve, glancing gaily at the crowds bustling past and around the perimeter of the room. I stood beside my husband, Travis, who was an employee of the firm putting on this affair, enjoying the company but not partaking in the conversation between him and Ben, beside whom Annie stood in-kind. They were our usual spots, beside the men, and we had learned long ago that we didn’t need to fill the void and femininely converse in order to stand comfortably and with confidence.
The hangar boomed with a muffled announcement. A man had stepped up to the podium. I couldn’t make out the words, nor make out his face, but he wore a dark suit—very proper, almost overtly so—and everyone started shuffling to their respective chairs. I followed suit, tapping Travis on the arm—he was still chittering with his friend, each with a chilled beer in hand and broad smile on face—and gestured for him to come and sit with me. He and the other two followed as we found the closest row of four consecutively empty seats. In front of us, two more of our close friends had found empty chairs. I quickly exchanged hellos with them before they turned about, sat down, and stared ahead. I noticed they’d freshly filled their plates and were eager to get to them.
Thus the ceremony began.
It wasn’t a minute or so into the drawl and monotony of formality that my Blackberry Smartphone began to annoyingly beep. I jumped and quickly reached for my bag, which was sitting in the empty seat to my right. Travis leaned in. ‘Do you have an alarm on or something?’ he whispered at me with a slight tone of rebuke. I shook my head and ravaged my purse for the contraption, feeling the confused and irritated eyes of the surrounding attendees burning the back of my head.
When I pulled out the phone the screen was unfamiliar. It had somehow turned itself on and installed on its hardware a kind of alarm application I’d never seen before. All I remember was seeing large, bold red letters flashing at me, and feeling a depth of paralyzing bewilderment and fear I hadn’t before experienced. I didn’t want to push any buttons. I didn’t want it to go away.
‘What is it?’ Travis inquired, nudging me. My response was a quick shaking of my head. The alarm grew louder the longer I let it go. Then he demanded, nudging me harder and obviously embarrassed for his career, ‘Turn it off.’
WARNING, the screen blinked at me. TOXIC FUMES IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY.
I was about to hold up the device for Travis to see when I was overcome with a sharp, suffocating pain in my throat and chest. I coughed, gasped, then fell, retching, atop my purse as I looked around me. The hangar filled with screams and people running, stumbling, falling over and passing out and, maybe, even dying right before my very eyes. The gay little paper plates and the geometric snacks were strewn across the floor, kicked under chairs and stomped on by panicking feet and knees. I shoved Travis, unable to talk for the convulsions of my body and the lightheadedness quickly overcoming me, but he needed little encouragement from me to move. Ben and Annie had already evacuated their seats, freeing us from the confines of the row of folding chairs.
By the time I’d made it to the aisle there were bodies everywhere.
I didn’t know if they were dead or not but, really, I didn’t care. My head felt heavy, my breathing still hurt, blackness tunneled my vision. Fumes had filled the building. The substance swirled as a grey, murky, deadly looking cloud which seemed to solidify at standing height. I leaned forward at a right angle, trying to get low to the ground to avoid as much of the mist as I could while still keeping upright enough to run, or try to. At waist height I was still breathing it, but the air was noticeably sweeter toward the ground.
Amid the chaos I’d lost track of our other two friends. Had they fallen? Had they escaped? Ben and Annie were nowhere to be found. My heart broke for them. My husband tried to look for them; he stood up to get a better view at his full six-foot height but was quickly overcome by the Cloud and lurched forward, gasping, coughing, back down to a kneeling crouch. With each breath I had less and less oxygen, my lungs burned more and more, the tunnel became smaller and smaller, and my body became heavier and heavier.
If we didn’t run now, we’d never make it.
My hand still on my Travis’ arm, I pulled at his shirt sleeve. ‘We have to go!’ I yelled. It was hard to hear myself over the screaming and crying and tumbling of people and the distinct sound of bodies falling atop plastic chairs, sending the furniture flying in multiple directions toward other soft bodies or scraping across the concrete floor. Even so, through the racket I could clearly make out the booming voice of the overdressed man standing at the podium:
‘Don’t worry,’ he said calmly, almost grotesquely, ‘when you wake up you’ll be in a safe place. We’ll take care of you.’ He kept repeating himself. It was obvious the crowd cared little of his calm comforts. It was becoming painfully obvious that this entire affair was some kind of set up. But for what reason, I didn’t know.
I pulled again at my husband’s sleeve and this time he immediately followed. We ran—rather, dragged ourselves—as quickly as we could toward the big doors, toward the heavenly light of fresh air and freedom and life. For certain, now I knew: this hangar really was a purgatory.
By some miracle we made it outside. I was in too much pain and too delighted by the fresh air to bother noticing if any other bodies had escaped the confines. We still heard screaming and shouting and stumbling behind us as we listened to our own gasps for breath, the frightening drone of the suited man’s voice amidst it all. I’d yet to regain full vision when Travis pulled at my arm. I looked up at him. He was recovered more than I and standing up stark straight, which was surprising considering his lungs were historically weaker than my own, although perhaps his body was inspired to heal by the fear of pursuit. He pointed, tugging at me still. I looked along the line of his finger. A handful of suspiciously adorned men were coming toward us. They reminded me of agents from Men in Black or Matrix. I hadn’t noticed them before. They hadn’t been inside the hangar. From where had they come?
One more, sterner arm tug. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, and I quickly stood upright and, together, we bolted off as fast as we could in the general direction of the parking lot.
I was out of my element.
I’d only been to this airport a time or two and, even then, to the main office which was right by the parking lot. I’d never had to navigate the entire field before and, if it wasn’t for Travis, I would have run in the wrong direction. I galloped alongside him, just thankful I’d decided to wear slacks and flats instead of a dress and heels.
There were numerous hangars and small buildings to make our way around before coming to the lot, where our truck was (hopefully) awaiting our return. Probably not a coincidence, I thought as I panted and checked behind us for our pursuers, to get people as far away from their vehicles as possible for this special occasion. We wove a stumbling path around and in between buildings, the slapping of dress shoes getting nearer and nearer to our tails with each faltered step. It wasn’t long before the running had cleared the toxic air from my lungs and I felt almost fully recovered, sprinting some feet ahead of my other half who shouted out directional instructions from at my heel. ‘Left here, now right, around this corner,’ he said. I followed without question.
Coming around a particular corner we ran into another mysterious body. Apparently our aggressors had radioed in to devise an interception. There was no doubt our brakes were working as Travis and I skidded to a halt and turned in an alternate, yet less preferred, direction. Though we hadn’t been captured the mistake had cost valuable distance between us and the men running at our heels. Being smaller and lighter on my feet, I’d made the stop and the alternate turn more quickly than my spouse and, by the time I was again at full sprint down the length of one of the larger hangars, Travis encouraging from behind to ‘Keep running!’, they were within arm’s reach of him. Incited by his yelling, my fear erupted into panic and my heartbeat and breathing and the sound of my shoes against the blacktop overcame any noise from behind. In the distance I could see a sliver of familiar asphalt—the corner of the parking lot, salvation!—and the spark of hope enlivened my adrenaline even more and I ran ever faster.
I turned the final corner and had come within fifty feet of the lot when I heard the soft, heavy thud of a stumbling impact of bodies behind me. I turned mid-stride to look. A couple of agents dashed around the corner I’d just cleared, looking determined and bloodthirsty. One was grinning.
My husband was nowhere to be seen.
My heart tore. Despite my terror, tears welled up. I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t stop. I was at the lot. My feet, now with a mind of their own, kept up the pace with the dedication of a finely built metronome, telling me, ‘If he fell, they already have him. There’s no good you can do by stopping now. He would want you to keep going.’ My mind eventually caught up to my feet and I turned to face forward again, the fire in my stride renewed.
The truck wasn’t there. No cars were. In the time between us arriving at the airport just over an hour ago to now, the entire parking lot of at least fifty cars had been completely cleared out. What the agency lacked in warm-heartedness they made up for in cold efficiency.
I had no choice but to continue running.
By the miracle of adrenaline and pure desire, I made it to the nearest neighborhood intersection without getting caught. I could still hear feet slapping the ground behind me, but the noise had dwindled. I imagined a team of the agents breaking rank to locate their vehicle and come, swooping in from behind, to pick me up off the road like a lost kitten.
A beat up and rusted-under Ford Aerostar minivan rounded the corner as I approached, it’s side door sliding open as it skidded to a halt in front of me. I put on the brakes again and prepared myself to bolt over the chain-linked fence to my right Jackie Chan-style, but there was no need. A handful of ordinary-looking folk peered at me, wide-eyed, from inside the dingy van. The driver was a heavyset man whose face I couldn’t make out; the front seat passenger was a heavyset woman with a kind yet very frightened face; there were two bodies in the middle of the van. On the far side, a woman, about my age, who was thin and pale and waving her hands at me to hurry up and get in the car all while staring behind me, undoubtedly at my pursuers. Closest to me, and in charge of the door, was an elderly man who reminded me of my deceased grandfather. He had a kindly face and, despite our current situation, was grinning at me. He had his left hand on the door and his right was extended out toward me, reaching. I reached back. We grasped each other’s wrists and he pulled me inside, closing the door swiftly behind me as the driver stomped on the gas and sped us away.
I never knew the other passengers’ names, but we raced down the neighborhood streets in an undetermined direction for quite a while.
Everywhere the streets were deserted. A few lone cars remained—some driving suspiciously calmly, others parked and empty, still others racing multidirectionally as we were.
I crouched on the lap of the old man. In any other situation I would have been fighting my way off, but the fact was that the car simply had no more room. The back bench seat was filled by three anonymous yet obviously frightened bodies; because they had multiple windows from which to get a good view, the trio gave occasional high-pitched reports of whether or not we were being followed and the spotting of any agents out on the sidewalks and streets we flew past. The driver and front passenger were stone silent. The girl in the other middle seat directly in front of me was quiet, reserved. She looked the type to be shy in a normal situation; certainly, I thought, this tense situation had her trapped in a sea of soundlessness.
The old man upon whose lap I sat didn’t speak. In fact, it seemed he hardly realized I was there. He stared out the window, left hand still firmly grasping the door’s handle. Outwardly he was calm, but his eyes were alert, scanning the horizon and dashing this way and that, and his ears were large like those of an old wolf’s: listening, waiting, planning. He looked to be in his late eighties and in perfect health, despite his handful of arthritic-looking knuckles and the dry, leathery skin which tends to inflict elderly men who have had a hard and full life. I imagined he’d been through a war or two during his years, thus explaining his trained composure in this particular unfortunate situation.
Thinking of how he reminded me of my grandfather got me thinking about my father, which got me thinking if he and my mother were alright. Had the death cloud reached Dallas, too? Though I knew I didn’t have my purse with me I recalled vaguely that, during the chaos in the hangar, I’d instinctively stuffed my phone into the inside pocket of my Levi’s jean jacket. I burst into motion, patting myself down and unintentionally elbowing the old man in the ribs, and found the familiar hard, electronic rectangle right where I thought it would be.
I pulled out the phone and looked at the screen. The alarm had long since sounded and the screen had returned to its usual blackness. I peered at it for a few seconds, relief coming over me. At least I still have this, I thought.
I touched the plastic, activating the phone. It turned on, the screen brightened, but I didn’t recognize the display.
The phone’s programming had completely changed. The icons on the main screen hadn’t simply reset to factory settings, nor had they rearranged themselves: they were completely unfamiliar and there were only four or five of them, as opposed to the usual dozen. Though unsettled, I ignored the icons and tapped on the Contacts button.
There were no numbers stored in the phone’s memory. I squeezed the device out of frustration with a futile prayer that doing so would wring from it the information I desperately needed. Inspired by a faint blink of hope, I stopped squeezing and tapped on the Call icon in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. A dial pad appeared. I stared at the familiar square of numbers, racking my brain. I barely remembered my parents’ area code and regretted not making more effort to memorize my father’s new number which, in my mind’s eye, I could see in my office at home, scribbled on a yellow Post-it atop the old teak wood desk which used to be his. The only number I had memorized was Travis’, and a lot of good that did me now.
After a few long seconds of agony and self-loathing, I came to with a new found plan. Forget the calls, I thought, and returned to the phone’s main screen. I saw the icon for a map. I touched it. It wasn’t what I’d expected.
My intention was to locate the nearest place—a police station, pawn store, outdoorsman’s mall, shooting range—which could supply us with firepower, and then arm ourselves and make our way toward freedom. Whether that meant driving to the next county, state, or even north toward Canada, I wasn’t sure. But defense and escape had become number one priority, at least for me. Then, once safe, we (or myself alone) could regroup, reassess, and make plans to recover our families.
What appeared when the program opened was not a map or a local directory, but what seemed to be a real-time, high-quality, satellite tracking system.
It was a satellite view of the Midwest. Without much effort I made out the two western Great Lakes—Superior and Michigan—and could see a long black cloud, whose beginning was at the farthest eastern point of Lake Superior, snaking its way westward across the water, cutting over the top ends of Michigan and Wisconsin, and curving at a slow angle across the breadth of Minnesota, directly over Minneapolis.
Old Man interrupted me. ‘What’s that there? A map?’
‘I… I don’t know.’
Shy Girl spoke, startling me. Of everyone there she was the last one I expected to talk. ‘Is your phone different, too?’ she said, the whites of her eyes seeming to overcome the deep green at their centers.
‘Yes,’ I said, then stuttered: ‘yours, too?’
She nodded. ‘I don’t know how, but they overrode them. All of them. Maybe so they could use whatever phone they found? I don’t know.’ She shook her head shamefully and went back to looking out her own window, as if it had been her job to know the technological details and she’d failed.
‘Those fellows in black,’ Driver shouted over his right shoulder. He had a deep rumbling kind of voice that I hadn’t expected to hear from him. It sounded very authoritative, fatherly, like a general’s. Suddenly I felt better that he was the one driving. ‘We were at a school district meeting when they appeared—’
‘Like ghosts, they did,’ blubbered the front passenger.
Driver nodded. ‘We barely made it out of the building. Had to kick one of them in the nuts to get hold of this car, I did.’
‘It’s not your car?’ I was surprised that I cared at that moment about being a conspirator in a case of grand theft auto. I shook my head and rolled my eyes at myself behind closed lids. The law be damned right now, I thought.
‘Hell, no,’ Driver said with a twinge of pride. Without stopping or slowing he jerked the wheel to the right and headed north onto a main road I didn’t recognize. It was midday; the street was four lanes wide and completely deserted.
Shy Girl spoke up again, laying her hand on my forearm. ‘You ought to get rid of that,’ she said, eyeballing my phone. ‘They can probably track us.’
I stared down at the tool in my hand, the only object I had in my possession which could help us through this mess. Without it, we were blind. Not wanting to chuck it out the window, I quickly removed the rubber OtterBox cover and tossed it on the floor of the minivan. I removed the back cover of my phone, pulled out the battery, and dropped it in the upper-front pocket of my jacket. I buttoned the pocket closed to secure the valuable inside. I looked up at Shy Girl, pieces of my Blackberry in each of my hands. ‘Will that do?’ She smiled and nodded, removing her hand and returning once again to survey through her window. I reassembled my phone and dropped it, whole, into the inside pocket where it belonged.
We had to ditch the car once it began sputtering through its last morsels of gasoline. It had been a while since we’d been followed—at least, according to the Backseat Trio—and we all felt safe enough to stop and reassess the circumstances.
Backseat Trio hadn’t bothered saying anything before scattering like a flock of startled hens, each in their own direction. My presumptions about them being together went up in flame.
Driver and Front Passenger stood side by side in the middle of the road creating a combined wall of both angry and anxious flesh. Together they made it clear they were bound and determined to go their own way. Driver said, Front Passenger nodding despondently in agreement by his side, ‘If we stick together it’ll just slow us down,’ by which I think he meant that if they had to hang out with us we’d slow them down. I acquiesced. I could run faster on my own.
Old Man and Shy Girl parted from me soon after the Wall tromped away, but not before Old Man nodded at me, telling me ‘Good luck’ and ‘Keep your eyes open’ with a bit of a sly and crooked grin and a finger pointed at Heaven. He was the first to turn, sauntering off with a limp in his left leg. I didn’t know for sure, but I imagined it was an old injury from some World War Two shrapnel. At least, for some reason, I hoped it was. Shy Girl squeezed my arm lightly then turned, rushed to the old man, and clung to his bicep, helping him along as they walked away toward a nearby high-steepled church. I assumed they were related, and watched them as they were eventually swallowed up by the great big doors of the historic stone cathedral.
I twirled the silver opal and ruby ring around the finger of my left hand, abruptly aware of being extraordinarily alone on a warm, sunny spring day in an unfamiliar yet beautiful neighborhood of Saint Paul.
I stood there for a while, scanning my surroundings. There was a slight breeze and the trees, full in their greenery, rustled and whistled their tender songs; little did they care about the troubles of human beings. A few finches felt the same and darted overhead, chirping gaily, taking shelter in the eave of the three-story apartment building Driver had stopped the van beside. The church Old Man and Shy Girl had disappeared into was familiar to me. I hiked upward to the crest of the hill upon which the old building sat and, when there, stopped to looked down at the domed city Capital.
At least now I knew where I was.
In a burst of confidence, I pulled the battery from my pocket and reinstalled it into my Blackberry. Working as quickly as I could, I tapped another icon on the unfamiliar screen: a Yellow pages app. In a couple of minutes I’d located a location nearby from which I could secure some arms and more comfortable clothing. I memorized the address, estimated my direction, and then disassembled my phone again. I moved quickly down the hill, looking left and right and keeping close to buildings, as I secured the battery in my jacket pocket.
I loped down the street at as easy a pace as my feet could muster.
My toes, ankles, and heels were beginning to rub raw; these shoes weren’t made for on-foot getaways. I had traveled only a few long blocks before the pain from the growing blisters and the stitch in my side overwhelmed me, causing me to stop behind a broad maple and fold over, propping myself up with my hands on my knees and leaning my rear end against the disinterested tree for support. ‘I’d never make it in war,’ I grumbled.
I panted, looking around. A sign nearby pointed toward a hospital. I blinked at it, mentally changing course. A hospital was no armory—that was still a few miles away—but I could at least secure some first aid supplies to cover up these sores. Maybe I could dig through a locker room or supply closet and find a pair of comfy nurse’s socks and sneakers. Maybe there would be escapees holed up there. And, maybe, I could steal myself a car. If I were lucky I might find an ambulance with a CB radio and GPS installed. Now who’s Grand Theft Auto? I thought.
The hospital wasn’t too far and I was able to walk there without trouble. I came up from behind, making an intentional wide circle around its perimeter to survey any occupants or guards. I had no idea what I was up against. The embarrassment of silliness struck me as I hid behind another wide, friendly tree, but I quickly shrugged it off. I was acting the part of some overly cautious action film heroine in a strange land, but better safe and silly than sorry.
As I rounded the hospital grounds I heard voices. Many voices. Normal voices, not the ones of agents or strange men at podiums. I crept around a row of hedges. A mixture of confusion and relief washed over me, followed by hesitation and suspicion.
A swarm of people crowded around the Emergency Room doors of the hospital. Coughing, hacking, groaning, moaning people. Most of them were standing, seemingly well enough, while others had lost the strength to stand and wait and had fallen as lame soldiers into the crack between the ground and the building’s base. Even fewer citizens wandered aimlessly. One middle-aged man, his furrowed brow thick with concern and determination, appeared to be scouting around the hospital perimeter for another way in. I watched him as he disappeared around the far corner.
Most of the people were quite a distance away. Except for one, and she spotted me before I her. I jumped when she spoke.
‘Do you need to get in, too?’ she whispered. She was a short, stocky women, and sickly. Her skin—arms, hands, face—was patched everywhere with dry, pale-pinkish scabs, overrun with scaly psoriasis. Her hair was thin, blonde, and in massive disarray. Aware of it, she had hidden her locks, for the most part, under a knit beanie cap pulled down low over her skull; only a few stray clumps of matted hair crept out from underneath. She wasn’t in a hospital gown, but the flowery and faded muumuu she wore was just as unflattering. She had no purse, no pockets, no coat, but from her left wrist was tied a leash which, at its other end, was grounded by a panting and surprisingly well-groomed golden retriever. She was grinning, and the dog seemed to be smiling. But, then, I thought, are golden retrievers ever not smiling?
After catching my breath I answered her, still crouched behind the hedge. ‘Sort of, but not on this side.’
‘Oh, dear, there’s no other way in. They’ve all checked.’ She pointed toward the crowd of people.
I looked her over, giving her as suspicious a glare as I could. ‘Do you need to get in?’
‘In? Oh, dear, no. I’ve just got out. I’ve missed the sunshine.’ She smiled ever brighter and took a deep breath of the fresh air. She was not an attractive woman, but she had her own beauty about her; a raw, childish honesty; the kind you see on newborn foals rolling in the young spring grass. I let my guard down a little.
‘How long were you in?’
‘Not long, but long enough.’
‘Hm,’ I said, then turned my eyes back toward the crowd. A few of the men at the back of the group had begun yelling about getting out of the way to let the sick folks in. A woman near the front screeched in return: ‘We can’t go in! There’s no more space inside! And, dammit, we’re ALL sick!’
I let out a deep breath and pursed my lips.
‘Do you think you can do me a favor?’
I turned back to the woman. She was standing there, staring at me, hands clasped tightly together. She looked to be a woman who knew her own end was near. I eased the suspicion in my gaze even more and looked between her and her dog, which was now happily sniffing a dandelion flower, a so-called infection of the delicately manicured lawn but which, in truth, should be cultivated for its medicinal properties. I didn’t answer her yea or nay, but she went on once I acknowledged I’d heard her.
‘Can you take Mason?’ she pointed to the dog. I cocked my head, raising an eyebrow. ‘You look like a lady with a plan,’ she went on, ‘I can’t leave here. I can’t get far, even if I tried. I don’t need to tell you how sick I am, but Mason, well… he’s a good dog.’
‘He’s your dog,’ I said, turning my attention back to the crowd. If this was the only way in, I was out of luck.
‘No, actually, he’s not. He’s the hospital’s dog.’
I looked back at her. ‘The hospital’s?’
She nodded. ‘You know, one of those therapy dogs? He’s visited me every Tuesday and Thursday since I’ve come in for treatment. He’s a good dog. A smart dog. Will you take him?’
I contemplated. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with a dog, ma’am.’
‘For a little while, then. Ease my mind, won’t you? Dump him at the first sign of trouble, I don’t know. I just can’t bring myself to let him run wild. Not in this city. He’s too nice. Surely he’ll get run over.’
I couldn’t bring to tell her there were no cars out on the roads. Mason couldn’t get run over now if he tried. ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ I asked.
I was watching the crowd—something was happening and people were beginning to shuffle inside—but I felt the woman shrug. ‘Not sure,’ she said, ‘but a lot of people got sick and the hospital staff just kind of up and left. If you ask me, feels like something fishy is going on.’
‘I haven’t seen one in a while.’
‘Where do they park them?’
She pointed. I looked. ‘There’s a garage over there where they keep them for repairs and storage. Usually there’s one or two out here in the drive, but seems they’ve all disappeared, too.’
‘Thanks,’ I nodded at her. She nodded back. ‘Good luck with the dog,’ I said, and slowly backed away down the length of the hedge. Before I knew it the woman had made her way to me and stood in my path. ‘Please move,’ I grumbled.
She held out the human end of the leash. ‘Take him,’ she begged.
Her hands were rough and calloused and inflamed. Whatever sickness she had, I couldn’t guess, but it had turned her into a figurative, if not literal, leper. I stared at the leash, hesitating. She read my mind. ‘I’m not contagious. I promise. Doctors don’t know what it is, but it’s not contagious. Mason and his caretaker wouldn’t have been able to come and visit me if I were.’ Her voice began to crack. ‘Please.’ She waggled the leash in front of my face. I was still crouched on the ground, hiding as best as I could behind the hedges, not wanting to bring attention to myself and unable to get rid of this woman who insisted she give it to me.
I took the leash and wrapped the loop around my wrist. She let go, nodded a thank you, patted Mason on the head, and limped off to head back toward the hospital building. All the people had been able to shuffle inside; not a single one was left to loiter about the grounds, even the very sick who had collapsed into fleshy puddles. I watched as the woman approached the automatic doors. Upon sensing her, the glass doors slid open, the hospital opening its mouth to enjoy the last morsel of one of its last meals.
Mason whined after the doors closed on her, but he didn’t move. No doubt, I thought, he knew she wouldn’t come out of there. Dogs aren’t that stupid.