They rode in silence for a while before John turned into a convenience store parking lot, “I'm going to grab a Mountain Dew. Anybody else want anything?”
“Dr. Pepper?” Devon and Jeff said at the same time.
“Two Dr. Peppers it is. You coming Mark?”
“Make it three and I'll wait here. Thanks.”
John checked his hair quickly in the rearview mirror before getting out of the car when the door shut Mark turned in his seat to look at Devon and glanced at Jeff.
“So... you were in jail? Anything we should know about?” Mark asked.
“Nothing Devon doesn't already know. John knows some of it. It was years ago. I was nineteen and he wasn't and I did some time, but I swear. I've been good. I've done it right. I haven't touched anybody. I swear.”
“But,” and Mark fixed his eyes on Jeff's face, “you were handing out free ice cream. Was that some sort of... what was that all about?”
Jeff sighed. “You weren't the only people who got free ice cream.”
“That's kinda my point. What was that all about?”
“If the parking lot is empty it sucks for business. If someone's car is there that's popular other kids will stop in to see them. How many times did you get there and get free ice cream and your friends joined you? They all bought something. The cost of two sundaes was easily offset by the stuff the people who came to see you got. It's like seed money in a tip jar at a bar. Once there's someone there other people will come by. But if nobody's there nobody will stop. Lots of restaurants do it. When new restaurants open they have the staff park out front. Once they're established they park out back to make room for the guests. It's an old trick.”
“That's the only reason?” Mark asked.
“You're asking if I thought you'd put out for me if I gave you enough ice cream?” Jeff said, sounding less resigned and more angry.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“How much ice cream would it take for you to think that was a good idea?” Jeff asked.
“Thanks.” Jeff said sarcastically.
“No, I didn't mean it like that. It's just that it's not my thing.” Mark said.
Jeff laughed dryly. “I know what you mean and yeah. That's my point. If that was what I was trying it'd be a stupid way to try it. By the time you ate enough ice cream to think we should hook up to balance the books you'd be a giant toad and... blech.”
Mark and Devon laughed, “No fatties. Gotcha. So, nothing hinky going on?”
“Nothing more hinky than charging your friends for visiting you at my store.”
“K.” Mark turned back around and watched John come out of the store holding two six packs of Dr. Pepper twenty ounce bottles and one of Mountain Dew. He opened the door and handed them back to Devon before climbing in.
“What'd I miss?”
“Jeff doesn't like fatties and he didn't use ice cream as bait to catch us, he used us as bait to get our friend's money.” Mark said reaching back for a Dr. Pepper that Devon was pulling off the plastic ringed holder.
“Nice summary.” Jeff said.
“Did I leave anything out?” Mark asked.
“That you, especially John are teases and flirted thinking that's why I was letting you have free stuff. You thought you were playing me. I think you forgot to mention that you were taking advantage of the Dairy Queen.” Jeff said, with a mincing high-pitched twist on the last of the sentence.
“I still want to know why he called us instead of the police or something. Oh. Well, probably not big on calling police I guess.” John said, changing the subject; wondering who had told Jeff of the nickname. He hadn't made it up but he'd certainly used it. Hell, everybody did... not everybody. Not Mark or Devon. John glanced over at Mark realizing that for the first time.
“No, not really.” Jeff said, taking a drink from his Dr. Pepper before passing a twenty up to the front seat. Mark took it and held it out to John.
“Nyah. This one's on me.” John said and Mark passed it back to Jeff who wouldn't take it.
Devon reached for it and snapped it up. “I'll hold it while you ladies decide whose it is.” He slipped it into his pocket.
“So?” John said and stopped before rolling his window down. In the direction of downtown sirens could be heard and after sitting there, all of them listening, it seemed they were moving away from them, not getting closer. “So,” he pulled into the road and entered the line of cars filing through the construction. “Why us?”
“I don't... well... I don't have a lot of friends my age, and those I do have were at work. I wanted to talk to somebody and well... it was a bad idea. I'm sorry I got you involved.”
“How'd you get our numbers though? We never gave them to you?”
“Kayla gave them to me around Christmas last year.”
“You asked for them?” Mark asked.
“I don't remember how it came up. I didn't come right out and ask, but it came up that I didn't have them and she offered and I said yes. I put them in my phone but never used them until today. Shit! They're in my phone. They've got my phone!”
“I can tell you my number if you need to call it.” John said, “But the car's not that big, you could just say “Hey, John!”
“If they start looking for me they'll probably look at my phone and my text messages and they'll see I said you should come to the shop and when I'm not there, and you're not there. Shit!” Jeff slapped his leg.
John winced as he took the shoulder of the road and then turned onto gravel, getting out of the line of cars. “You're paying for the car wash.” He said as he took the gravel away from the almost parked line of cars creeping through the construction at a snail's pace.
Two gravel roads later they were pulling onto the road half a mile from the brick plant. A minute later they were parked out of sight where they had parked earlier that day and climbing out of the car.
"I gotta piss." Devon climbed out of the back seat and trotted towards the tree line in the direction of the river. The river lay, when it wasn't flooded, 200 yards from where they stood now. It was back in its banks now, but earlier in the spring it had made it half way to the plant and the ground was still soft if you went too deep in the woods. Standing water had made for the biggest mosquito population in years.
"Me too." Mark followed, putting his Dr. Pepper on the ground in front of the Prius.
He and Devon stood apart from each other trying to balance not facing each other with not facing the two at the car. "We're still going to talk, Devon." Mark said.
"Not while I'm holding my dick and being eaten by mosquitoes we're not. Why not drop it? It's fine. I'm fine. Jeff's fine. There's nothing to talk about."
"Yeah there's not." Mark said. They both finished and went back to where John and Jeff were opening bags and pulling out tents.
The four of them busied themselves with setting up the big, family-sized tent against one of the walls, clearing away some of the bricks that had fallen over the years. When it was completed, and sleeping bags had been thrown into the large one room tent they sat inside the tent away from the mosquitoes. “We should have brought bug spray.” Devon said.
“We can make a trip into town if you want.” John said. “If one or two of us went, not Jeff, they're probably looking for him... they may be looking for us too come to think of it.” John said looking at Mark then Jeff and shrugging. “We can start a fire tonight after the sun goes down and nobody'll see the smoke. Maybe that will help.”
“What are we doing out here though? We just going to sit here until we run out of food? I didn't see much food in that bag.”
“There's plenty. I'm going to try and get hold of Dad once he gets off work. See what he thinks.”
“Five bucks says he does NOT think it's the zombie apocalypse.” Mark said.
“You're on!” John said. “How do you think I know so much about the cover ups? He's a member of a couple online groups about that stuff. He sends me links to most of the better YouTube videos.”
“Zombie apocalypse?” Jeff asked, “Like Zombieland?”
“Exactly! That's why I'm good at cardio.” John said. “It's the first rule.”
“Zombie apocalypse.” Jeff said again, as if trying out the feel of the phrase. “I don't think that's the problem. I'm almost sure that's not it. Those two didn't seem like zombies to me.”
“Well, they're part of the government conspiracy covering up the zombie apocalypse, obviously.” John said laying down and stretching out, using a sleeping bag as a pillow. He yawned. “What time is it?”
“Four-thirty.” Devon said looking at his phone.
“Another half hour before he gets off. I'm going to take a nap. You girls keep it down.”
Mark and Devon left the tent and Jeff followed them. “Thought probably best to... well... just thought I'd come out too.”
“Again?” Mark asked. “I'm kidding. Good grief! Relax. Why are you so defensive Devon?”
“Nothing. It's just...” Devon lit a cigarette and went to sit on a piece of the roof that fell inside the fallen down walls of the abandoned factory. “It's just he's nice to me and there aren't a lot of people who are.” He held up his hand at Mark. “You are, but you're always with John and he's... well... it's different now.”
“But...” Mark started.
“I know. But I've been to your house. Your mom hugs you every time she see's you almost. You know when the last time I had a hug was? I know it's stupid, but just to touch somebody else is nice. It reminds me I'm not alone. I hate that feeling. A room full of people and feeling like I'm not there, like in that old Star Trek episode where they were ghosts. I feel like a ghost.”
Mark stepped forward and gave Devon a hug, almost knocking his cigarette out of his hand. Devon returned it hesitantly at first, then he hugged him hard and was the first to break the hug and sit back down on what he'd been sitting on.
“You should have said something.” Mark said. “I didn't know.”
“How'm I supposed to say that?” Devon sniffed and blinked. “It's not like it comes up in conversation. Or like I could say it in front of...” Here he jerked his head in the direction of the tent where John slept. “Jeff knew... knows.”
Mark turned to look at Jeff, remembering he was there.
“Don't mind me.” Jeff said grinning.
“Stop grinning like that.” Mark said laughing.
“Hey, I'm not the one hugging anybody. I'm over here minding my own business!” He said smiling.
“You know you liked it.” Mark said with another laugh, turning to Devon, “I'm just kidding... but not really. ” He laughed again, the nervous tension that had been there dispelled for the moment.
They sat while Devon finished his cigarette and they all swatted at mosquitoes.
“You shoulda said something you jerk.” Mark reached out and punched his arm. “Just don't go to the park. Not for that.”
“Exactly.” Jeff said.
“I know. I don't. Just drop that OK?” Devon said.
“I swear. I won't.”
“Alright. I'll drop it then.” Mark pulled his arms into his t-shirt. They didn't fit well, it was a form fitting t-shirt. But the mosquitoes were eating him alive. “What do you want to do then while he gets his beauty sleep? Should you tell your aunt you're at Brushy with us so she won't worry?”
“She won't.” Devon said.
“You should tell her anyway.” Mark said.
“Fine! Damn. She won't care. Sincerely. She won't care.” Devon reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and flipped it open to call his aunt. While he did Jeff went to the tree near where Mark and Devon had gone earlier and marked a third tree in the same way they had marked their trees earlier.
When he returned he sat on the ground by the Prius, leaning against the back bumper with his knees up in front of him and his arms across his knees. Head down on his forearms he sat there in silence and ran over the day's events until Mark came and sat down beside him. “So. You got any ideas? What kills yeast that would cause a cover up?”
“You're not on about that too are you?” Jeff asked.
“On about what? It was your bread!”
“The cover up. That can't be what it was. It had to have just been an asshole being an asshole. I over-reacted because of that whole past thing. I haven't done anything wrong. I'm a business man. I'm clean. I should have stayed.”
“I wasn't there. I don't know. But if they're just assholes then it won't hurt anything for you to not be there. If they're up to no good then not being there is fine too. The thing that's not adding up is the water thing is recent. Like everything was fine yesterday, but today it's not fine... it's like it's starting to fall apart or unravel around the edges for them but the roads... the roads have been closing since March. If they're related this is something they knew might happen.”
“Who is the 'they' that you're talking about?” Jeff asked.
“The same 'they' that does everything. 'Them... They...' The boogeymen that go bump in the night. The bad guys. Black hats. Men in Black. Whatever. They're the bad guys, and if they started shutting off the town back in March they had to know something was going to happen, or might happen, or could happen. This is a small town. Do you know how hard it is to keep a secret in a small town?” Mark asked.
Jeff stared at him unblinkingly for a long minute.
“Oh. Yeah. Well you did OK. I didn't know.”
“You weren't paying attention. Devon guessed and we talked about it almost a year ago. There's other people who know. Not a lot, but it's out there. Most just figure I'm gay and leave it at that. That's OK with me. It's safer, and it's close enough to the truth that the real truth can hide behind it. Maybe they're doing something similar here. Maybe they're talking about some other issue that's close to what the real issue is, but still completely wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Say everybody assumes I'm gay. No problem. They quit thinking about it. They don't wonder why I'm not married. They don't wonder why I don't have a girlfriend, and really... nobody really wants to see two guys on a date so they don't think about it. Single guy, living alone, gay. BOOM. No questions asked because nobody wants to know the answers, they already know the answer. Dairy Queen. Now, that's something someone else started. I never did. But it spread pretty quickly. Now everybody 'knows' that I'm gay. But the thing is I'm not exactly gay. I mean I like guys, but not the right age guys... there's a different word for it when the guys aren't old enough... it's not gay though. It's something else. Doesn't matter. But, since everybody thinks I'm gay they quit looking for any other names or pigeon holes to put me into so there I am, not having to lie, letting everybody else lie for me, and it's close enough... I'm not seen in the company of women and am not married so it's like a camouflage, but not one I picked out. Everybody else did it for me so here I am, something else from what everybody thinks.”
“You like me?” Mark asked, surprising Jeff.
“What? Yeah. You're a good guy.”
“That's not what I mean. You know what I mean. Do you like me?” Mark asked again, a certain intensity in his question.
Jeff paused, saw Devon had come over too. The silence was loud in his ears. “Yeah. I like all three of you more than I should. But that doesn't mean...”
“Dude... call it whatever you want, but I'm pretty sure on this one. We're all three guys, and if you like us... that makes you gay.” Mark said looking up at Devon. “Right? Guy likes other guys is gay. That's what it means.”
“I think he's right Jeff. You're a homo.”
“Damn. All this time I thought I had a cooler name for it. But that's not what I'm getting at. What I'm getting at is the thing they're hiding, if they're hiding something, and I'm not convinced yet that there is a 'they' or that they are hiding something, what they're hiding has to be something out there in the open that everybody knows, but that everybody is wrong about... but almost right about.” Jeff said, his eyes were bright. He felt sure he was close to something.
“So, what? The roads or the water?” Mark asked.
“I think the water. If the roads are to control or limit travel then the water would have had to come first. When did they start closing bridges to work on them? Wasn't it this spring after the floods?”
“Yeah. My dad got hired by a road crew near here in March and that's about the time Ames was flooded so bad. We tried to go down to visit and couldn't get there. Lots of the gravel roads were flooded over and closed so the main roads in and out of Ames were under water and so were the gravel. We tried to go look at it but couldn't get close enough.” Mark said. The three of them were sitting behind the car now, Devon going through the bigger bag that had held the large tent looking at the food. Mark sat with his arms still pulled into his shirt. Jeff, still in an almost fetal position looked out to the trees.
“So, maybe the flooding caused something that happened to the water, or might have triggered something, flooded the water treatment plant, or something, and they decided to... This is stupid. If the water weren't safe we'd know about it. They'd issue a boil ordinance or something like they did when it flooded in Ames. Remember? They had to boil their water.” Jeff said.
“Yeah, but boiling only works on like bacteria and stuff. If you've got particulates you have to filter it, and if it's chemical you have to filter or sometimes you can't get it out at all. Some stuff you have to precipitate out, get it to go out of solution and then filter it.” Mark said.
“How the hell do you know that?” Devon asked.
“We talked about water in Chemistry and how it's in short supply in like India and how even though there's lots of water on the coasts it's not easy to make it drinkable because of all the crap in it. Especially around the cities where they recycle computer parts and the water gets contaminated so in addition to being salt water it's got other industrial waste in it.” Mark said, jumping as his phone beeped. He pulled it out to check it just as they heard another beep from inside the tent. He looked at the message and then up at Jeff. “It's from you.”
The tent zipper broke the silence following that statement and John stepped out of the tent holding his phone. “Jeff, you seem to be wondering when we're going to meet you at the DQ and you want us to call you to tell you when we'll be there.”
“They're using my phone? They're using my phone! Dammit!”
“Not only are they using it, they're hoping to use ours too. Bet they can find us if we call. Wonder if they can find us from the GPS?” He flipped his phone over and took out the battery. “I'm guessing if they could they'd be here already, but that doesn't mean they won't be able to eventually. Take your battery out too.” John said looking at Mark. Mark did the same, dropping both on the ground as if they were hot.
“Well they know who we are now.” Mark said as John sat across from him and between Jeff and Devon.
“They know who you are. Mine's a pay-as-you-go phone and only ever paid with cash and never gave them my name or reloaded it online. What? It was Dad's idea. His is the same way.”
“Do you have any idea how paranoid that sounds?” Mark asked.
“They won't know your names. I didn't have you in the phone book by your names. I didn't want any of my employees finding the phone and wondering why I had your names in it. They might can look up phone numbers, well, for Mark at least, but they won't have your real names.”
“What names will they have?” John said, fearing it would be “Minute Man” or “Point & Shot” since Jeff had gotten the number from Kayla.
“Nothing that will connect them to you.” Jeff said.
John smiled wickedly, “C'mon. Am I in there as 'hot-stuff' or 'Fresh-meat?' You gotta tell now. You can't just leave us not knowing. The mystery could distract us at a critical moment and we would just stop running from the zombies, rub our chins thoughtfully and say 'I wonder...' and then BAM! Our brains are zombie food!”
“You're making it out to be more than it is. And seriously, if I were trying for discrete do you think I'd use either of those?”
“Then you won't have any trouble at all telling us.” John said. “C'mon. I'll tell you how I have you in my phone.”
“You don't have my number.”
“Yeah, but if I did have your number. I know what it'd be under.” John said dismissing Jeff's objection with a wave of his hand.
“It's not that big a deal. You,” and he pointed at John, “were Jerri, and Mark was Mary. Same first initial was all.”
“Jerri & Mary. I think that's adorable.” Devon said. “Wait, how do you have me in there?”
“I didn't. I remember your number. It's easy.” Jeff said. “Told you it wasn't that interesting Jerri.”
“Well damn. I was going to call Dad, but now... Hold on.” He grabbed his go-bag and dug through and pulled out an old flip phone and turned it on. “Almost no battery. It's an emergency phone with like one hundred minutes on it, but it's in case this one died. Hopefully he'll answer.” He dialed the number for his dad and held the phone to his ear, looking at the battery meter as the call connected and rang. “Ugh. I should have charged it. Hello. Dad? Gotta be fast I'm on the spare phone and the battery's crapping out on me. I know. I didn't charge it. This is charging weekend. I would have charged it but anyway. There's some guys... what?... OK. Call me when you can talk. I'm fine. I've got some people with me and they're fine too. OK. Call me back. Don't forget. Call this number. Bye.” He closed the phone. He's arguing with some construction guy. They're turning people around and not letting him get back into town right now from that direction. Said he has to go around the long way. He'll call back when he's on the road away from them.”
Devon's phone rang and he looked at it. “It's my aunt.” He said sounding confused as he flipped it open. “Hello? I'm fine... You sound tired... With some friends at Brushy... Gramma's? What's wrong? OK. I'll see if I can get a ride in. OK. I said I'd see. It's not like I can walk from Brushy! Bye.” He shut the phone. “Gramma's in the hospital. She fell down and won't wake up.”
“Didn't your Mom say she was tired or sounded tired or something?” John asked Mark.
“Yeah. But it's end of the week so she's probably tired. You just took a nap. You tired?”
“I always take a nap. I only sleep 4 hours a night. You know that.” John said.
“Yeah, but being tired's not a symptom. People get tired.” Mark said.
“I think it's a symptom. Whatever it is that killed the little yeast is starting to make bigger people tired.” John said. “We're too big for it to kill.”
“None of us are tired.” Jeff said.
“None of us drink water either, unless it's the kind they put in pop and they don't make pop here so we won't have the exposure. You drink the water Jeff?” John asked.
“No, I can't get used to the taste. Your water here tastes bad. But it has always tasted bad. It's not new.” Jeff said.
John's spare phone rang once before he flipped it open. “Hello... No, we're not home. We're... we're at Brushy like you and I were in Ames for my Birthday for a long weekend... yeah, just like that... We can meet you where we broke down last fall if you want. I'll meet you there, that'd be better... OK... Twenty minutes... Yep. See you there.”
He hung up and Mark looked at him as if for the first time, “You were here for your birthday. We went to the movies. He had to work.”
“Yep. He knew that too. So when I said we were at Brushy like we were in Ames he knew we weren't at Brushy, and nobody listening would know we weren't there. Listen. If we're going to meet him in twenty minutes we need to leave like now. Mark. You're coming with me. You two.” He pointed at Jeff and Devon, stay here and if you hear anybody coming hide in the trees. Take the stuff over there now. You might want to walk back and forth a couple times so they don't know which tracks are the new ones, then move from where you enter the woods so they can't follow the path right to you in the woods. We'll be back. I think Dad's coming out here too. He's trying to get hold of Mom, but she's not answering her phone.”
“Where are you going to meet?” Devon asked.
“Yeah. I think I'm not going to tell that part.”
“Is it near a store? Can you get me some cigarettes?”
“You know I don't buy smokes. They're bad for you. You should quit. Isn't that what Mark's always saying?” John asked pushing himself to his feet and moving the driver's door.
“If we stop I'll get some.” Mark said. “But you really should quit.” He opened the door and slid in. Jeff and Devon moved away from the car, each holding a nylon bag. They moved to the trees before Mark called out “Devon, did you want to try and go into town to go to the hospital and see your Gramma? If we get closer we could drop you off? Maybe you could call your aunt for a ride?”
“Nyah. I'm good.” Devon shook his head and turned back to walk towards the woods with Jeff.
“We're not going near town though.” John said
“If he'd said he wanted to go we would have.” Mark said. It wasn't a question, or tentative. He had made up his mind. John shrugged and they climbed in the car, shutting the doors just as the phone rang.
“Hello? Yeah... We're leaving now... Is she OK?” John's face took on a worried look, lines creased his forehead, “You see if you can get her, and call me when you know something. We'll stay put. There's nothing going on here. Hold on.” He rolled his window down and stared along the treeline listening; then Mark heard them, helicopters. Three helicopters, matte black with no numbers on the tails, Mark always looked for that now after knowing John's habit of blaming everything on unmarked black helicopters, flew low along the road moving towards town. Mark looked to where Jeff and Devon were at the edge of the woods, frozen and watching the helicopters go by. Maybe they wouldn't be noticed. Maybe they wouldn't care if they did see campers out in the woods. But Mark didn't like the look of them. “Dad. Three unmarked black helicopters, they looked like they were stealth tech, odd angles and that. Three of them just flew down River Road towards town, low, just above tree height. They were sealed. If they were troop transports it's not a lot of troops. Yeah. Be careful. We may move from here now. It feels exposed. Keep me posted.” He hung up the phone and dropped his hand to his lap and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. “Mom's at a friend's house. She went over after work and didn't feel good. She was sitting on the couch watching Ellen, they DVR it and watch it together after work, and she fell asleep. She barely wakes up enough to talk for a little bit before she goes back to sleep. Dad's going to pick her up and then call me. I think he's freaking out. He's saying they've drugged us all with the water, but that doesn't make sense. You can't dose an entire population through the water safely. Some people don't drink water. Some people drink lots. There's drug allergies. I don't think it's drugs.”
“The CIA used to always talk about LSD in the water supply. I heard it on that 'Stuff You Should Know' podcast. They did one on LSD. You listened to them right? If they can do experiments on people at parties and using hookers and they sure worry about other people putting it in our water supply, it must be for a reason. They never worry about things ahead of time. Shoe bomber tries to light his shoes on fire on a plane. Boom! Nobody can wear shoes through security any more. Shampoo bomb maker guy tries to make a bomb. Boom! Nobody can take fluids onto a plane any more. Security is always reactive. If they're worried about someone putting things in the water supply I bet it's because they've done it.” Mark said.
“Wow. You do listen to the stuff I tell you.” John said.
“Well. This time there was some back-up support for it from some people who aren't crazy like you and your old man. So, what do you want to do now? You think we should move?”
“I don't know. I was hoping Dad would know. I was doing what we'd said we'd do in case of the zombie apocalypse. Just get out of town and meet up somewhere brining supplies and friends we wanted to live through it with us.”
“You say zombie apocalypse a lot, but you pretty much mean anything bad don't you?” Mark asked.
“Yeah. It's just easier to say zombies. Nobody looks at you funny then because they know you're joking.” John said looking in the rear view mirror as Devon and Jeff came alongside the car.
“You got a minute?” Jeff asked, leaning forward to talk to John through the open window.
“Yeah, Dad's going to get Mom so we'll hole up for a while. Why?”
“There's something you should see down by the river. Not sure this is the best place to be.” Jeff said.
“OK.” He backed the car back beside the tent and he and Mark climbed out and followed Jeff and Devon to the river, spreading out at John's insistence so they would make it harder for anybody following them to sort out the tracks later if it came up. Upon entering the trees they met by Jeff who led them towards the river. Before they got to the river he stopped and pointed. Ahead of them Mark saw what looked like a snow mobile path, in the soft ground. Tracks had pressed down the leaves and dirt.
“It's too narrow to be a two track vehicle, but I'm not sure why it would be snow mobiles this time of year. But what else can it be? And they're new too. This looks like a high traffic area for,” Jeff gestured at the tracks, “whatever those are. Then with the helicopters going by... I think maybe we're not in the best place to camp if we're trying to avoid attention.”
“I think you're right.” John said softly. He and Mark walked over to the tracks and knelt to look at them.
“They're not snow mobiles. There's no front ski imprints. You can always see the skis on a sled. They're wider than the tracks are, further apart. Whatever they are it was just tracks, and not super heavy. They didn't sink too far in this mess.”
“They could have been heavy but fast.” Devon said.
“Yeah. But they're not throwing much behind them. You'd almost see a rooster tail of shit behind them and you don't. It's more than one too so if they were chucking mud at the guy behind them he'd be pissed. I think they weren't moving really fast but there were a lot of them.” Mark said, pushing his finger into one of the tracks. “I wish I'd paid better attention when we went hunting last year with Dan. He's the best tracker around. He could probably tell from the water in them how long since they'd been made. But I don't know how.”
“You're right though,” John said. “Let's pack up. There's too much going on here.”
“Then what?” Devon asked.
“I don't know.” John said. His voice sounded distant. He stared at the tent for a minute, unmoving, and turned to Mark. “Run with me, a lap and back. I need to clear my head.”
Mark looked at him and at the direction of the tracks in the mud, “I can't run in these pants. They're too tight.”
“Why do you even wear those things? You look like a fag in them.”
“You're right. I should be wearing a beanie. Goddamned mosquitoes!” Mark flailed at the mosquitoes flying around his face. Several red dots marked the bites on his arms. “I gotta dress good for work. It's in the rules. C'mon. Let's pack and get outta here.”
“K. You're right. I'm just... OK.” John started towards the tent and started pulling out poles and pegs, letting the tent collapse on itself as he did so. Finally, without much attention to how the tent should be stored he balled it up and stuffed it into the trunk.
“You OK?” Devon asked as John walked around him towards the front of the car.
“No. My mom's got whatever it is. There's some CIA or FBI or NSA or some other alphabet soup flying helicopters into town. They're not letting people in or out. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing or where the fuck I'm going next and he's” he gestured at Mark, “dressed like fucking Batman but can't run.”
“What's so important about running?” Devon asked.
“Nothing. Just forget it. Nothing. It doesn't fucking matter.”
“Devon, give me your pants.” Mark pulled his pants down, peeling them off his legs as he undressed. He had a determined look on his face. “Just give them to me. I'll bring them right back after I beat this pussy... again.”
Devon looked at Mark with surprise on his face. “Give you my pants?”
“Yeah. I'll give them back. Yours are baggier. I'm not running in my boxer briefs.”
“Dude. There's no way I can fit in your pants.” Devon said backing a step away.
“So pull on a sleeping bag or sit in the car or something. Seriously. You saw how long it took last time.”
“Fine, but you're stopping to buy me cigarettes for this. I'm almost out.” He unbuckled his belt and stepped out of his pants and handed them to Mark who stepped into them. They were over his ankles when he pulled them up and belted them.
Devon handed the pants to Jeff who was staring at them confused. “What exactly are you two going to do?” Jeff asked.
“They're free runners. They run over things instead of around them. Evidently John here wants a re-match from losing to Mark earlier today. I'm getting in the car.” He slapped his legs and one of the mosquitoes left a smear of blood where he hit it.
Mark and John stretched beside the car. “Why do you want to run now? Why now?”
“To clear my head. I think better when I'm running... or playing guitar. I need something to focus on to slow my head down. It's like I've got voices in there, lots of voices yelling at me to do things. I've got all the shit dad's talked about going through my head. I've got my mom talking to me to come help her. I've got you always asking me what to do next. I've got those guys at the Dairy Queen talking about Jeff being a perv. I've got Devon tricking at the park and I want it to stop. It's like being in a room full of people who are all talking at once and it just won't stop!” John was talking fast. Mark had seen him like this before, at parties if he was there for too long with too many people he would get panicky like this and make an excuse to leave and go play guitar or jog or run or something alone. He knew John had some sort of anxiety thing, but he'd always managed it OK. He was good in small groups, but big groups, and evidently stress, could set him off.
“I don't always ask what to do,” Mark said doing a couple jumping jacks.
“Yeah you do. Every weekend you'll call or come by saying, 'What you want to do today biatch?' and I have to come up with something.” John said.
“Why didn't you say something?” Mark asked.
“I don't usually care. The shit you come up with is boring sometimes. It's just as easy to decide for us.” John answered.
“Well, how about this. I'll decide when to GO!” He took off running, vaulting over the nearest wall and into the factory proper.
“FUCK!” John bolted after him, a second behind him at the most.”
“The two of them flew across the plant diagonally from the corner near the guard shack they had parked behind towards the opposite corner. John caught Mark at the corner and as both their hands slapped the wall at the same time they heard engines and froze, heads whipping towards the sound as two olive jeeps rattled down the road toward the car, Jeff, and Devon.
“Oh shit!” John knelt behind a piece of the roof that lay on the floor and pulled Mark down with him.
They saw two men in the square-pixeled digital camouflage, climb out of the jeep and could hear in the sudden silence as the jeeps were turned off, “It's the pervert we were on the lookout for, and he's got a kid in the car.” One of the men called back to the second jeep. They talked to Jeff and to Devon in the car, but Mark and John couldn't hear them. They saw Jeff get slammed across the hood of the Prius and have his hands zip tied together. Devon was pulled out of the car and stood there in his underwear and t-shirt, “He doesn't have any fucking pants on! God knows what they were doing out here! You take the kid to the medics and we'll take him back to camp. They're going to want to interview him.” More words were exchanged with Devon who glanced once in Mark and John's direction, pleading on his face, and then he looked towards Jeff who was being hauled bodily in the direction of the second jeep.
With a screamed “NO!” Devon threw himself at the guard holding Jeff and tackled him at the knees, taking him down, and Jeff too.
“Shit!” Mark said as he leapt from his hiding place and ran towards the scuffle. Two men were climbing out of the second jeep now and hadn't seen him yet. Mark ran like he had never run before, skimming the tops of walls as he leapt impossible distances, catching himself by the fingertips and pulling himself over them to hurl himself in the direction of the soldiers. As the last two were getting to Devon to help the third pull him off the one he had tackled Mark was vaulting on to the crumbled remains of the wall that stood 8ft high at the edge of the old building. He threw himself at the three soldiers who were standing over Devon who was punching the fourth soldier and yelling incoherently. He saw, as he hit them, John landing on the ground in a roll and coming up to punch one of them as Mark's tackle brought him towards the ground. The man's neck made a snap as his head flew back and then it was a tangle of arms and legs.
Mark had knocked all of the remaining soldiers to the ground with his tackle and John's punch had taken one out of the fight for a while it looked like. He lay there very still. As the first one that Devon had tackled tried to push himself up and kick Devon off of him John's foot came across like a punter kicking a field goal and connected with his temple and he quit moving. Mark was punching one of the guards repeatedly in the back and and the fourth was reaching for a radio. John jumped over the pile of bodies and planted his knees on the man's back driving him into the ground and knocking the radio free to skitter underneath the car. As the guard lay there gasping for breath John pulled zip ties out of the guard's back pocket and zipped his hand to the guard that Mark was punching. Soon he got the other hand zip tied to another guard's hand, the one he had kicked in the head. Devon freed himself from under the guard that was trying to throw Mark off his back and he kicked him in the face twice and he stopped moving.
The boys pushed themselves away from the pile and looked at the soldiers on the ground. Mark and John knelt and quickly zip tied all their hands together, checking for pulses on the ones that weren't moving. Mark looked up at John, “This guy's dead.” It was the one John had hit as Mark tackled him.
“Take any weapons, zip ties, anything they have on them and get it over here in a pile. If they resist,” he looked at the one who had dropped the radio, “we'll kill them too. Devon take one of their pants. Hell, take all their pants. And their boots if they fit. Check them for phones or radios really close, and check in their ears for ear buds.” He opened the jeep using his shirt to touch the handle and hauled out a duffle bag and dumped it on the ground. “Put all the pants in here and anything that might be a weapon put over there on the ground. We're taking those to the river.”
Devon used the web belt to keep the pants up that he'd taken off the one he'd initially attacked, and then used a multi-tool with a knife blade to cut Jeff's hands free. There was blood running down Jeff's face from a cut on his head. “Guys. This is bad. Check the cars for food, cell phones or money. Why aren't we keeping the guns?” He asked John as John put them all in a Hy-Vee bag he found in the back floor board.
“Because we need to run and hide, not fight. We got lucky this time because they didn't see us. If we had a gun we might stay and fight when we should run. If we're going to live through this we need to be rats, not lions. We're not good enough to go against an army. We're not good at all!” He spun on Mark, “What the FUCK were you thinking?”
“I couldn't let them take Devon. I won't let them take Devon. I wouldn't let them take you either. I'll do anything I can to help either of you, but I won't let anything happen to either of you if I can help it. Don't yell at me for being a fucking friend! I'm your friend too!”
Jeff nudged the remaining guard. “Get up.” His voice was hard. “Get up and get into that shack over there.” He walked over and picked up one of the pistols, checked it for bullets and flipped off the safety. “Start moving, now.”
“You're in a shitload of trouble.”
“Not yet I'm not. I'm the one with the gun. Boys. Help them into the shack. Now.” Mark, John, and Devon bent and helped carry the unconscious and unmoving soldiers to the shack. Two of them moaned and started to move their heads as they were put in the furthest corner from the door in a slumped circle. Jeff gestured at them with the gun, “Zip tie them to anything you can. I don't want them moving for a long time. Someone will come after them, but I don't want them lose until they're cut lose.” They zip tied legs to legs, and arms to radiators and exposed boards from the walls. It was messy and not at all neat looking but none of them thought the soldiers would be getting themselves free. Several times they would make threats or try and intimidate the boys into stopping but Jeff shut them up until all the boys were outside the shed. “You guys don't have any insignia or name tags on your uniforms. Who are you with?”
“Fuck you faggot.”
“If I shoot you there are no witnesses to say who shot you. Your only chance of catching me is if I leave you alive. You do understand that my leaving you alive is the stupidest thing I could possibly do in this situation right?” Jeff asked the one that had thrown him over the hood of the car. The other one who had taken Devon towards the second jeep was dead now. This was the only one of the soldiers who had hurt anybody. Jeff held the gun on him. The tip didn't waver at all. “Tell me who you are with and why you are here and I won't kill you. I'll do something stupid. I'll leave you alive. I'll leave you alive to go back to your family. But if you don't tell me something... if you don't give me a reason to... I'll kill them first, and then I'll kill you. If you think I won't, ask yourself how these two high-school kids took you four trained soldiers out while me and him distracted you. I trained them. I'm their sensei and you're about to be dog food if you don't tell me.”
“You're training a fucking private army?” The soldier asked.
“Nope, just body guards to keep stupid fucks like you that don't answer questions away from me.” Jeff aimed the gun at one of the soldiers from the second jeep, “I'm counting to ten and shooting Mongo here if you haven't told me who you're with. One... Two... Three...”
“Stillwater!” The one with the gun aimed at him blurted, panic and fear in his voice as he stared, wild-eyed at the person they'd been told was a person of interest with a prison record for molesting kids. How they'd accidentally come upon this man with three highly trained high school aged martial artists had to be bad luck, but he didn't want to die for it. “We're contractors hired to work with NSA to help with the containment of something inside the city. I don't know what. We're just supposed to stop traffic on this road. I swear to God.” He babbled.
Jeff moved the gun until it was aimed at the one he had been talking to. “That man there, he just saved your life.” Jeff turned to the three stunned boys, “C'mon men. Shut the door and let's go.” When the door shut Jeff sagged to his knees and shook violently for a full minute before pushing himself to his feet. The three of them were still staring at him. “Open the hoods on the jeep. We need to make sure those things are out of commission.”
“What the fuck came over you?” John asked as they got close to the first jeep? “Where'd that come from? Sensei? What the hell? I don't know how to fight! If Mark hadn't fallen on them we'd all be zip tied across the hood of the jeep!”
“One thing I've learned is people believe what they want to believe. They're in the military, or military contractors. Which is easier for them to believe?” John asked as he started pulling wires off at random. “That they were beaten by an elite troupe of highly trained high-school assassins trained by some modern day Fagin or that three kids and a gay guy just beat them up and locked them in a closet?”
“But the gun! You weren't really going to shoot them were you?” Mark asked.
Jeff looked at him for several heartbeats and then looked away. “I don't know. I was hoping I wouldn't have to find out.”
As Jeff turned from the first jeep, a pile of wires at his feet, he moved to go past Devon who caught him in a hug. Jeff stopped, startled, hugged him back and said softly, “Thank you.”
“You're welcome Sensei.” Devon said, sniffled and then walked behind Jeff to see where John and Mark and taken things off the second jeep and thrown them in a pile at their feet. Scooping all the wires and parts up Jeff carried them to the first pile, stirred the two piles together and then kicked the mess around the clearing.
“Almost.” John said. “Mark, can you go throw their guns and crap down the hole on the other side of the shack?” He opened the trunk and took out the bag and went through it until he found some baby wipes in the go bag. “You should clean up your face Sensei. And hey, thanks for that back there.” He gestured towards the shack. “I didn't know what to do with them and you were fucking awesome. I didn't know you were that cold.”
“I'm not. Sometimes I had to be. But I'm not.” Jeff said dabbing at his face trying to get the blood off without re-opening it as he stared at his reflection in the side window of the Prius. “Question. Your dad get you this car?”
“Yeah.” John said a touch defensively.
“Of all the cars in the world you could have picked any car... and you picked a Prius?”
“Nope. I could pick any hybrid or electric car. He's anti-gas guzzler and pro-battery. With a power inverter the batteries on the car will power a camp site for ages.”
“Oh. OK. I just saw you as more of a muscle car man. I didn't understand the Prius.” He paused as he looked at the cut on his head and finished wiping the blood off his face. “Now I do.”
“I wish I could have gotten a muscle car! But that wasn't an option if he was paying.” John said.
“That makes sense I guess.” Jeff said.
“If you're done primping we can get a move on.” John said opening his door. Mark was returning from discarding the weapons and snatched up the things they were keeping of the soldiers. Some clothes, money, two flash lights, a Garmin handheld GPS and two cell phones and radios. There were some snack bars in green MRE-like wrappers that went in the trunk too.
Everyone piled in and John turned on the car and switched from MP3 player to radio to see what the news was saying as he pulled out onto the road and turned to go north, away from town. Lady Gaga was singing and as they drove it went straight from that to a Justin Bieber song. Three songs later no DJ had interrupted with the time, station identification, or weather report. They continued north, past the Community Apple Orchard and then onto a gravel road going west. Two more songs with no DJ's voice went by and when the third started John reached over and turned it down so it could barely be heard. “Well, they've got the radios hooked up to iPod shuffles it seems like.” Mark commented.
“Better than taking them off the air. People would complain about that. Nobody's going to complain about missing the DJ's in this town! Maybe they'll stay this way. Not even any ads! I could almost learn to like it.” John said.
“Where are we going?” Jeff asked from the back seat.
“To where I was going to meet Dad earlier. I guess if he can get in and out of town with Mom he'll still meet us there. It's off the beaten track and we won't have to talk about it in the open if we still meet there.” John said, glancing up into the rearview mirror.
“You OK?” Jeff asked as their eyes met through the mirror?
“Yeah. None of them hit me.” John said.
“Well, the one guy didn't look too good,” Jeff said, avoiding saying he was dead.
“Then he shouldn't have started shit.” John said flatly. “I didn't mean to do that, but I'm not going to feel bad about it.”
“If you want to talk about it...” Jeff started.
“I don't.” John cut him off.
The Prius turned down a gravel road and pulled in next to a small old cemetery fenced in with wrought iron bars on one side and the other three were just hedges of evergreens. Maybe thirty old graves dotted the area dominated by an American flag. The wrought iron arch over the entrance read, “Johansen Family.” As they climbed out of the car they noticed the wind had picked up and cooled off. The clouds that had been on the horizon were moving in, low and gray. It felt like rain to all of them.
In the distance of town a plume of black smoke rose and was swept to their left by the wind. “Wonder what that is.” Devon said looking down to open his box of cigarettes and count them as he stood at the back of the car facing town.
There was a tremor that moved through the ground. The three of them reached for the car and braced themselves. It happened again. “What the fuck!?!” Mark said as it felt like he was standing on a waterbed. The other three said much the same thing. Around them the birds were silent and the wind picked up and it started to rain. The moved to get in the car and slammed the doors behind them wild eyed.
“Earthquake?” John asked looking over his shoulder at Jeff.
“Didn't feel long enough to be an earthquake. But I don't know. I've never been in an earthquake. What was it? Two seconds long? Are they that fast?”
John flipped the phone open and called his Dad. The phone rang half a ring and then a recorded woman's voice announced that all circuits were busy. He snapped the phone shut and threw it at the dash of the car. It bounced off the plastic dash and landed at Mark's feet, open and the screen was visibly cracked. “SHIT!” He yelled, seeing the phone, and punched the top of the car. Everyone sat in silence for a minute as he sat holding the steering wheel with both hands staring at the rain drops spattering the windshield.
“Well. Fuck.” He said finally.
“Yeah.” Mark said. Devon and Jeff just looked at each other. Jeff shrugged. Outside the rain picked up and the fat rain drops pounded on the car as the radio played Extreme's Hole Hearted.
From the back of the car the soldier's radios clicked twice before a voice came on, sounding panicked. “Base! There's a hole! A giant fucking hole here. It came out of no where. The rest of my squad is in it. It starts at the intersection of Highway 20 and twenty-ninth street south and west towards... shit. I can't see where it stops. It's huge. Holy shit it's huge! Call the national guard. Call somebody! This is too big!” There was the sound of a gunshot that came through the radio and then silence before another voice came on.
Calmer. Colder. “This is Base. All units. Begin radio silence immediately and stand by for orders. Maintain your positions. Control and contain the local population.” There were two clicks from the radio and then it was silent again.
“Mom.” Mark said softly.
“She's way south. She's got to be OK.” Devon said.
“A hole? What did he mean a hole?”
The broken phone at Mark's feet vibrated and the cracked screen lit up but was unreadable. Mark reached down and pushed talk, “Hello? Hello?” He looked at the phone and pressed the speaker button to hear John's Dad in mid sentence, “sink hole south of town. Not sure how long this will work before they cut phone service completely. Stay where you are. I've got your mother and am going to try and get to Mark's mom's house. Tell him I'm going there if I can get there. My reservist uniform and ID are giving me some mobility, but not much. I've got a buddy coming your way. I served with him. He'll be in a red Ford Escort, an old one. You can trust him. I'm fine. Your mother's fine but fatigued. Again. Stay there. Going to get...” The signal was lost with three rapid beeps and the phone powered off.
“A sink hole?” Devon asked.
“Red escort?” Mark asked.
“It's Dave. They were in Guard together in Afghanistan.”
“A Ford Escort? I didn't know they still made those.” Mark said, avoiding thinking about or talking about his Mom. He hadn't noticed how much tension he held in his shoulders until he felt it lift. If anybody could get his mother out of town it was John's dad. He'd been in Afghanistan twice with the National Guard and somewhere in Africa when he'd been in the service before going to work in the mines.
“I don't know. They might. It was his favorite car though so he keeps it running. Did you see Mad Max?” John asked.
“Yeah, a long time ago.” Mark said sounding puzzled.
“Master Blaster runs Bartertown!” Devon said loudly.
“That was the second one... but it's the same idea.” John said. “Dave didn't just keep the car running. He and a friend of his kind of fixed it up a little. It's not really street legal any more.”
“But it's a Ford Escort.” Mark said.
“Yeah, well. No accounting for taste. Who'd think I'd be running through the zombie apocalypse in a Prius? Can you smell the smug?” He waved air towards his face like a wine taster sniffing a glass of wine.
“I love South Park.” Jeff said.
“So Dave's coming here? Why don't I know Dave?” Mark asked.
“He's a little eccentric.” John said.
“Uh oh. This coming from you? And your dad? Devon, hand me a pair of pants. Yours are too short. I'm not meeting some special forces paranoiac in a red Ford Escort wearing high-waters.”
“You want yours back or some cammies?”
“Cammies. Mine are too tight to run in.”
Devon passed a pair up and Mark changed pants in the tight confines of the car's front seat and handed back Devon's pants.
“I think I know Dave. Does he drive a route? Delivering things for Aurora Distributing?”
“Yeah. Oh! Hey! You might know him through your work.” John said.
“Dirty blond hair? Glasses. Not real tall, average height I guess. Big Iowa Cyclone fan?” Jeff asked.
“That'd be him.”
“He's not that nuts.” Jeff said.
“Yeah, not at work. He's doing the pretend-normal thing. I think he thinks he's always in deep-cover waiting for the other shoe to drop.” John said. “You should hear him when him and Dad get together and have a couple beers.” John looked at Mark. “He's way way way worse than Dad.”
“Oh God.” Mark said. “And this is the cavalry?”
John grinned at him looking relaxed for the first time since they'd left the soldiers in the shack by the brickworks. “Yeah. He'll be great at this. The only thing is we aren't going to all fit in his car. We're going to have to split up.”
“You think we'll be going somewhere?” Jeff asked.
“You think we'll be going somewhere?” Jeff asked.
“I'm sure of it. There's no way something this big is going to happen and he's going to stand on the sidelines and watch. The hard part's going to be convincing him to let us go with and not just drop us off somewhere to 'stay safe.'” John said.
“I'm not sitting this out.” Mark said.
“Me neither.” Devon said.
Jeff didn't say anything.
“Well, better come up with a reason then. He's a little stubborn.” John said turning in his seat to face Mark and to be able to better see the two in the back seat.
“It's my mom that's in there.” Mark said.
“I need cigarettes!” Devon said firmly.
John barked a laugh. “Seriously? That's the best you've got?”
“That and I might can help. There's no way I'd be able to sit it out. Nothing ever happens and I'm not going to miss it!” Devon said.
“This is real guys.” Jeff said in a low voice. “It's not a movie. Maybe this is one for the professionals.”
“You mean the professionals that were going to haul you in or the ones that were black mailing you?” John said bitterly.
“That was before some giant sink hole opened up and swallowed a chunk of the town. What do you think you can do against a sink hole? Jump over it? Fight it? Whoever these people are will have bigger things on their mind than me or you if we stay out of their way!”
“Yeah. But are they going to help or not?”
“What help? What are you going to do? You're a Junior in High School. I sell ice cream. We're not exactly civil engineers. The power's going to be out. If it weren't for the rain there would probably be fires everywhere. There might be anyway. All we can do is get in the way!”
“So you want us to drop you off somewhere?” John asked, disgust in his voice.
“I just...” Jeff sighed. “I just don't think you're taking this seriously.” He finally said.
“This is my town.” Mark said. “My mom is in town. My gramma and grampa are over at the Haven. If I can do something I have to try to. If we don't try and help then who will? Those guys aren't here to help. They were here before it happened. They knew something was going to happen and they didn't tell anybody. They didn't warn anybody. Everybody there that is dead.” Mark's voice caught. “Everybody that died today is their fault. Somebody's got to help. We've got to help. If we don't... if it were us in there we'd want someone to try and help us. We have to go back to town. We've got to get people out. Hell, we've got to get the story out. What if they try an cover it all up. Act like they were just responding to an emergency and never admit they caused it... or tried to cover it up... or killed those people.” Mark stopped talking and looked down at his hands.
Jeff sat in embarrassed silence, “Just be careful is all I'm saying. I'll go with. I'll do what I can, but it's bigger than us. The smart thing to do would be go and find a farm house and sit in it until it's over.”
“I can't.” Devon said softly, tentatively. “I might be able to do something. I might be useful. I might finally be able to do something good... something people will look up to me for. I have to help. I have to try. I don't think a chance like this will come around again and if I waste it or go bury my head in the sand I'll be worthless forever. I'll be the guy that did nothing... again.”