I doubt that I got more than 45 minutes to an hour of sleep before we had a small platoon of soldiers crashing into our quarters and waking us up at sunrise. Not everybody, mind you…just the teenagers, give or take a few years. There was a certain urgency involved with getting us out of bed, kicking and pushing and shouting orders as they shook us all out of a deep sleep and lined us up against the cafeteria walls. Many of the adults were awakened by the ruckus, but weren’t bothered or agitated in any way by the officers rounding us up, one by one. Even while they were fully armed to the teeth and looked as if they were ready to waste us if we so much as gave them a halfhearted peep’s worth of protest. So the other adults laid their heads back down, and returned to a peaceful sleep despite the disturbance. Never once questioning our mistreatment or standing up for our right to the same level of comfort as they had. Instead, Alex, Preston, Donovan, me, and a herd of other young boys and girls were snatched out of their dreamscape and forced to line up to await further orders. The whole experience was so bizarre.

Preston kept yawning out loud every 45 seconds or so, rubbing his eyes with both fists as he tried to regain his grip on a waking reality. “What the heck are they doing to us? It’s soooooo early.” He whined.

Alex said, “I think this is the beginning of Donovan’s ‘scapegoat’ theory.”

Our extraction was quick. Super efficient. And before we fully knew what was going on, we were being led out into the hallway and marched towards the infirmary. I didn’t say anything out loud, considering that our hurried journey was probably going to involve needles at some point. Preston absolutely HATES needles, and I didn’t want him to flip out on us. Something tells me that having him try to run away and avoid capture today, of all days, would cause the soldiers to deal with him in an inappropriately ROUGH manner that the poor kid didn’t deserve. The truth is…there was something downright frightening about the way they were treating us at that moment. I never realized how much power they had over us within the walls of this shelter, and how easily that control could be abused to ignore the fact that they had no control over what was going on outside. How simple would it be to take all of their aggression out on the high school students standing in this line, just to feel better about the fact that we’re all fucked…and all the guns and brick walls and bully tactics in the world wouldn’t make them any less helpless against the horrors closing in on us, more and more, with every passing hour?

My heart actually began to race with the thought of it, and I found myself being a bit queasy in the stomach as I felt the eyes of every soldier that marched in front of us…suspiciously looking us up and down as if we were all infected with the disease. There was no discrimination between us. No separation between the students and the undead MONSTERS outside of our gates. As far as they were concerned…we all needed to be executed, without questioning the insanity behind their decision. Total extermination was the only strategy that they could use to ease their worried minds and make them feel somewhat ‘safe’ in this place. What a paralyzing experience it is…to be on the other side of society’s violent desire to rid the world of everything they find even remotely unpleasant as it exists in their safe space.

We could all instantly tell that we were being treated differently from how we had been treated before the Sergeant’s discussion with the others. As ‘children’, we’re used to being talked down to. Everything is simplified for us because most adults think we can’t grasp certain concepts or understand what they’re talking about without some level of childish explanation…even though our lives are probably full of more introspection and overwhelming drama than they would ever care to remember from a time not so long go, when they were our age. But as we waited in an endlessly long line of other teenagers, most of us still wiping the sand out of our eyes, the tension in that hallway was almost thick enough to choke us all. I found myself staring down at my feet to keep from looking any one of our soldiers in the eye. Their untrustworthy stares were SO intimidating. It was anger…it was fear…that I saw reflected in their gaze. Fear is a lot worse than anger. Anger can be bargained with to a certain extent. People are well practiced in keeping their anger in check, all for the sake of maintaining a civilized society. Fear, however? Fear is different. Fear is a collection of irrational thoughts and knee-jerk reactions. It’s ‘anger’ without the rehearsed coping mechanisms of restriction or self control…further spiked by a twitchy survival instinct that is way out of place.

Any one of these soldiers would fire on us until their artillery cut us in HALF if they thought it was a ‘them or me’ situation. And that’s a lot scarier than you may think when you see that they’re the ones with all the guns.

And we’re the ones that they’re afraid of…

As we approached the door to the infirmary, a few shuffled steps at a time, I peeked around the door frame to see the nearly panicked hustle of all of the medics on staff as they worked fast to study the behavior of every kid in the room. Tongue depressors and needles and flashlights being shone in both eyes to check for dilated pupils. I’m not even sure if they knew what they were looking for, to be honest. Anything out of the ordinary, I guess. But we’re adolescents. My body has been feeling ‘out of the ordinary’ since I was twelve. I don’t even know what ordinary is supposed to feel like at this point.

But…I did notice that same kid from last night, waiting in line with the rest of us. The one who had been staring blankly at the rest of us while we slept. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but…there was something so creepy about his complete detachment from the rest of us. Like…he didn’t seem to ‘fit’ with everybody else in the room. I understand that we’ve all been thrust into a horrifying situation without warning, and there’s a certain amount of trauma that comes along with that, but…

…There was just something so ‘off’ about him. I’ve never known a boy that age to be so still. So quiet. Most of my younger cousins couldn’t stand still for more than a minute or two without doing some sort of ‘Fortnight’ video game dance just to burn off the extra energy. But not this boy. He just…stood there. As though he was constantly slipping in and out of a daze. The same way that you fight to stay awake through a really cool movie, but your body just won’t cooperate. I don’t know…I just feel like…I should keep an eye on him. That’s all.

An hour or two went by. One by one, the teenage boys and girls were subjected to being probed and prodded, given shots, had bright lights shined in our eyes, were asked comprehensive questions and given cognitive tests…but nothing came from their extensive tests. I overheard Sergeant Brower talking to Dr. Vega, and the doc said, “As far as I can see…they all check out. Our teen civilians appear to be perfectly normal.”

But Brower replied, “Appearances don’t do me a whole lot of good here, Vega. What are the symptoms? What are the warning signs? How do we know who’s infected and who isn’t?”

“We don’t know yet. It will take time. We’ve just got to keep looking for abnormalities until a distinct pattern emerges among them. Until then…we’re flying blind.” He said. “The virus activates itself so quickly that we can’t be sure what to expect until the infection has taken full, or at least a majority amount of, control of its host. And, by then, it may be too late to vaccinate or defend against it. We’ll keep looking. But for right now? We’re not going to know friend from foe until they’re staring us in the face. That’s simply a reality that we’re going to have to deal with for the time being.”

Brower frowned up, saying, “You’re not doing much to put me at at ease here, Doc. I’ve only got so much faith to give.” Then he added, “Don’t think I won’t drop the hammer if I feel it’s necessary. Get me some answers. Do everything you can, and do it fast. Otherwise…we’re going to have to start making some hard calls around here. And that’s not going to go over well with the locals, believe me.”

Dr. Vega nodded, and replied, “We’re working as fast as we can, Sergeant. You have my word on that.”

What are they waiting for? One of us teenagers to bite them on the side of the neck? This is SO unfair! What we have, what we are…it’s not contagious! Maybe we’re not one of the older citizens of the city, but it doesn’t mean that we’re all toxic and a threat to their so-called ‘perfect world’ in general! Fuck! Leave us alone, already!

Two soldiers quickly approached Sgt. Brower and stood at attention in front of him. “Sir, we have a substantial cluster of hostiles moving towards the East perimeter. Awaiting orders.”

Brower decided to take the conversation out into the hallway. Hopefully, looking for a way to figure out what was going on out there. These school walls once felt like a stronghold when they first brought me here. An escape from the blood and gore running rampant through our neighborhood and city streets. But suddenly…it’s like I can feel those same walls closing in on us. Very slowly. An agonizing pace that…almost makes me wish that it could hurry up and crush me so the wait could be over.

We spent all morning trying to ‘calmly’ prove to a bunch of paranoid adults that there wasn’t anything wrong with us. It was a difficult task, to say the least. But after a few tests and pokes with a needle, they began to let us go. Mostly out of confusion and a lack of a reason to hold us hostage any longer in the infirmary. It was infuriating, but we didn’t protest for fear that they’d see that as a sign of us being…’zombified’ or whatever.

Just sneak your way past the big bullies with the assault rifles, and we’ll be alright. That’s what we were thinking. That was the mentality that was going to get us through this mindless process and back to a somewhat comfortable existence, after all.

When we were finally granted permission to go and grab ourselves a late breakfast, we found ourselves feeling completely violated by the people in charge. Unfairly treated. Suspected of wrongdoing without any rhyme or reason at all. It wasn’t just the ‘security measures’ that made us feel like outcasts…it was the fact that all of the adults were completely free from suspicion. Why weren’t they double checked for bite marks and strange behavior? Why weren’t any of them locked up in the basement, or scrutinized for walking the hallways past curfew? Why us? I can’t speak for everybody, and there WERE those teens that were pulling a nasty prank on us in the hallway…but what have I done to be treated this way? Or Alex? Or Preston? Or ANY of us? It’s just a bunch of bullshit. That’s all. And adults would be screaming and crying foul if the soldiers in this facility were treating them the way they treat us. Just saying…

I remember standing in line with the other members of my new shelter ‘family’, all of us remaining pretty quiet the entire time. Preston was silently pouting to himself, rubbing his arm where they had taken multiple blood samples from him and put a band aid and small cotton swab over the wounds they had inflicted upon him. He mustered up the courage to be a trooper about the needles, but he wasn’t happy about it. I think he held back the screams and the escape attempts simply for the sake of impressing the rest of us. But…like I said…he wasn’t happy about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Preston that quiet for that long before. To be honest, I found myself missing his chatterbox antics once they were gone. It was a lighthearted highlight to my day.

We were standing in line, waiting for food, when the silence was interrupted.

“Hey…” Came a voice from one of the soldiers approaching us. I would have been nervous at first, but I recognized him as one of the more humane troopers that we’ve come into contact with since we’ve been here. We saw Cooper standing before us with the silent boy he had been taking care of since his caravan of refugees showed up. “Can I ask your name?” He said to me.

“Oh…ummm…Jake, sir.” I said. Hoping that I was being respectful, I guess.

Cooper gave the boy beside him a light nudge and stood him next to me. “Ok, Jake. I need you to do me a big favor, ok?” He said. “I’m being called up to one of the top floors for immediate duty. I need you guys to look after my buddy, Walker, here for me while I’m gone. Alright? You don’t let him out of your sight. Keep him close, and I’ll be back to check on him as soon as possible. Got it?”

i wasn’t sure that I was up to the responsibility of it all, but Alex put a hand on my shoulder and said, “We’ll make sure he’s ok, Mr. Cooper. Promise.”

Shit. Well, I guess we’re locked in to a promise now.

Cooper got down on one knee in front of the boy and said, “I’m just going upstairs for a little while. Ok? I won’t be far away. I need you to be strong for me. Stay put for now, and hang out with your friends. I won’t be gone for long.”

The ‘Walker’ boy seemed sad at first. Teary eyed as his one and only trusted friend got ready to leave him behind. But after giving Cooper a tight hug around the neck, he accepted the separation, and let him go do his duty with the rest of the military. Soldiers who were already starting to stir and head down the hall at a quickened pace.

The rest of us were a bit unsure of what to do with him, but as soon as Cooper walked away, Preston eagerly stepped forward with a big exaggerated grin, extending his hand in friendship. “HI! I’m Preston! Preston Miles! Pleased to meet you!”

Even though Walker was around Preston’s age, or maybe even a year younger, he backed up a step or two from his cheerful outburst of an approach and refused to respond. In fact, Walker shrugged away from him entirely and lowered his eyes to stare at the floor. It struck me as being an odd reaction, seeing as Preston is the least threatening boy on the planet, in ANY capacity.

Still, Preston kept talking. “These are my bestest friends in the whole world. This is Jake. And over here is Alex. And this is Donovan! He’s the coolest guy ever! Stick with us, dude! We’ll look out for you!”

Despite his initial reaction, Walker appeared to warm up to Preston’s promise, and I noticed that he nodded, ever so slightly, in our direction after Preston’s favorable introduction to the rest of us. Alex attempted to reach out to him too, but Walker seemed extremely reluctant to get close to either one of us, so Alex withdrew the offer to keep him from feeling pressured or uncomfortable. Maybe he just needed some time. Who knows what he went through out there? I guess I’d be a little hesitant too.

He hadn’t spoken a word before, so I didn’t expect much from him now. We were, basically, just babysitting Walker until Cooper came back to take him under his wing again and shelter him from the public. But I was surprised at how comfortable he was standing in the food line with us after the first ten minutes. For a boy who was desperately clutching a friggin’ shotgun to his chest when he was first brought in to this place…his demeanor had changed up considerably.

We all allowed Preston to go ahead of us in line to get something to eat. I mean, he really didn’t complain, but…Jesus! The depressed look on his face after being subjected to more tests from the military…it just made us all feel bad. He had the kind of aura that we all felt the need to protect whenever we could…and I think we felt guilty for not being able to do so during the morning’s examination. Poor kid. What are they picking on HIM for?

Then, just as Preston was getting a plate full of food, Alex and I gasped as the two bullies that were messing with him before walked over and brutally knocked his tray out of his hands and they fucking LAUGHED about it!

“HEY!!!” Preston squeaked. But the two boys got in his face and pushed him back with their chests, getting a kick out of the fact that he was too small to fight back.

“Looks like you spilled your meal for the day, klutz! Too bad for you? Guess you’ve got to go to the back of the line and start all over again.” One of the boys said, and they gave him a disgusting grin as Alex and I looked on, wishing we could give those two bastards the brutal ass whipping they’ve been looking for.

Luckily…we didn’t have to.

Donovan stepped forward. Only a few inches taller than the both of them, but his aggressive attitude caused him to seemingly tower over them by a mile. They tried to look strong in his presence, but all of us noticed the hesitation when it came to them saying anything in Donovan’s mean-spirited presence. I saw them take a step backwards from Donovan’s approach…even if they think nobody else did.

Calmly, but angrily, Donovan said, “You two are wearing out my patience. You know that right?” He stepped closer, and they took another step backwards. “How about you boys clean up this mess, and then get Preston another tray full of food for his breakfast? How’s that?” Preston was completely silent this time, and we noticed that even Walker had taken a step backwards as though he wanted no part of this potentially volatile situation.

The second boy nudged his friend in the back, pushing him to take a stand. So his friend said, “Whatever. No good punk. Nobody here is afraid of you, you know? Nobody.”

But Donovan could already hear the submissive tone in his voice. “Really?” He said. And with a sudden jerk forward, he caused both boys to flinch violently from the threat of being jumped on. Seeing their obvious weakness, Donovan ripped into them in a way that I’ve never seen before. “Fucking WIMPS! Both of you!” He said. “Who do you think you’re fooling with this act of yours? Huh? Look at you. You’re literally shaking. You wouldn’t throw the first punch if your life depended on it. You’re a goddamned JOKE!” He said, taking one, two, three, four steps forward…and backing both of them up until their back and shoulders were pressed up against the cafeteria wall. “You think picking on people smaller than you gives you any power at all? You’re a fucking waste of oxygen at best. You talk loud and make idle threats, thinking that people are going to buy into your bullshit and see that as some lame example of strength. But you’re not strong. You’re a coward. You puff your chest out in the hopes that nobody will notice what a fucking chickenhearted piece of human trash you are. But your narcissistic sense of false confidence is wasted on me, junior. Because, deep down, you know that I could emotionally dismantle you in a matter of seconds without even breaking a sweat. And on TOP of that, one on one, I could beat you within an inch of your life without blinking and send you running home to mommy without losing a moment’s sleep over it. So you don’t have a ‘win’ here. You know it, and I know it.” Holy shit…the rest of us were STUNNED at this point. How was Donovan backing TWO bullies down at once? Hell, even *I* was scared of him at this point. “I told you to leave the kid alone. But you obviously didn’t get the message the first time around. So let me grace you both with ONE last warning…stay out of his fucking FACE, and you won’t have to look over your shoulder for me in this place. Because I don’t plan to tell you again. Next time…I’ll ‘handle’ you. No warnings, no tough talk. Just you two reaping the benefits of the bullshit you put out there. This the LAST time that I’m going to say anything to either one of you. I can promise you that!”

“Yeah? Well…well, you’d better watch your back.” One of the boys said. Unconvincingly, as his voice was trembling when he said it. They obviously didn’t want to trigger Donovan any further, and made sure that they kept their distance. They had a mean look on their faces, but it was all an act. They had ‘boundaries’…Donovan didn’t. “We don’t give a fuck about who you are. You can get your ass kicked just like anybody else.” He said.

Donovan stepped even closer…and, as expected, they backed down. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Donovan said. “See…one thing about no good punks like me? It’s easy for us to see the BITCH in people like you. You see, I grew up with REAL bullies! People who could seriously hurt me. People who could cause real DAMAGE to everything that I am, inside and out. I spent my whole fucking life dealing with the kind of pain and anguish that privileged little suburban brats like you only see on television, and WISH you could brag about at house parties in order to feel special. So excuse me if I don’t take you fakers seriously. You wouldn’t know the harsh reality of true abuse if it bit you on the ass. You’re no bully. You’re a PUSSY in a limp dick ‘costume’! I look at posers like you and find it difficult to keep from laughing in your fucking faces. You don’t know what real bully tactics are. You’re an internet meme at best. Nothing more. But, if you think you want to pick today to prove yourself worthy of being the badass you pretend to be in front of an audience…then let’s do it. Take your shot, big man. Go ahead. Swing on me. Show all of these people what a warrior you are…and knock me down a peg.” I happened to notice other people around watching this as well, wondering what was going to happen next. And silently agreeing that both of these boys were getting exactly what they deserved for making an ass of themselves. “Go ahead. I’m waiting. How about you? Huh? No? Show me some strength, kid. Let’s see if you’re willing to live up to your own hype. Or if you’ll allow everybody in here to see you for the weak bitches that I KNOW you are.” He said, getting even further in his face and staring him down. Suddenly shouting, “Do it!!! Jump off! I’m waiting!” Then he said, “Or maybe you’d rather have me tell little Preston to punch you in the face, himself? And I fucking DARE you to swing back at him! How’s that? The choice is yours.”

The boy he was talking to looked soooo nervous that I half expected him to WET himself right there in front of all of us!

But that’s when Donovan leaned over and looked at the other boy standing beside him. “You look like you’ve got a full tray of goodies. How about you help my boy, Preston, out and share it with him?” He hesitated, but as both boys looked at one another…a hidden surrender was exchanged, and the other boy gave Preston his entire tray.

Preston quietly whispered, “I don’t like the orange Jell-O. Can he get me the green one?” But Donovan was working his magic here, and didn’t respond. Instead, Preston let it go, and silently shuffled back to stand with us, the bully’s tray of food in hand.

Donovan gave the guy a smirk, and there was a brief pause before he suddenly lunged forward, grabbing the boy by shirt collar and swung him around in the opposite direction, pushing him backwards until he was forced to lean on the cafeteria table for balance. It all happened so fast! The rest of us jumped from the noise, the boy’s eyes wide as he squirmed from the unexpected assault. Donovan growled, “This is your LAST warning, asshole! You hear me? Lay off the kid! This is strike TWO! One more…and it’s back to the dugout for the both of you! You get me?”

The boy nodded frantically, his ‘friend’ standing by…doing absolutely nothing to step in.

I felt a gentle squeeze of my hand as the ‘Walker’ boy behind us reached out and stepped behind me slightly to avoid the conflict. I don’t know why it took me by surprise the way it did…but I think it was the most ‘human’ thing I had seen him do since he had been at this shelter. He was trembling at first, but a slight ‘return squeeze’ from my own hand seemed to set him at ease…if only a little bit.

However, the tables turned quickly as a large man suddenly rushed in from the side, pushed Donovan off of the boy, and twisted his arm behind his back! What the fuck just happened??? The two bullies took off running, and the rest of us were shocked to see the local sheriff slam Donovan’s chest against the wall and twist his arm even harder, as though he was looking to break it off of him!

Donovan grunted through gnashed teeth, and then was forced to cry out in pain as his face was pressed against the bricks. “Well, well, well…lookee here!” The Sheriff sneered. “How long has it been, huh? You’ve only been here for a short stay and you’re already causing trouble. Couldn’t fight the fire within you, could ya?”

“Urrgghh…do me a favor, Rainey…point that stale coffee and cigarette soaked breath of yours in another direction, will ya?” But sheriff pressed him even harder until he was forced to holler out loud again.

This time, Preston charged forward and pounded his two fists on Sheriff Rainey’s back. It did zero damage and caused more confusion than anything else, but Preston defiantly craned his neck up to look this grown man in the face and squeal, “You leave Donnie ALONE, you donkey face!”

Suddenly, we heard the sound of a single shot being fired from one of the upper floors. A loud, but distinct, popping sound that we were all getting used to in this place. Donovan used the moment to free his arm and turn to face Sheriff Rainey while he was giving the strangest look to the pipsqueak who had just given him the lightest ‘love tap’ attack that he’s ever felt.

Donovan and Rainey stared each other down, one on one. “Same old trash.” Rainey said. “Another Marshall boy…gone bad. They should have put you in cuffs the moment they ripped you from your mother’s womb.”

“Classy, Rainey. I can’t believe I let you kiss my ASS with that mouth!”

Another gunshot was fired through the air outside. You can’t help but jump when you hear the sound. Like with firecrackers.

Donovan rubbed his arm a bit, but put on a brave face, fixing his dark mass of curls before smirking at him. “You’re looking good these days, Slim. You lose some weight running from the zombie buffet out there, or what? Getting in a little cardio? It’s working for you.”

“Still the same smartass…” Sheriff Rainey stepped closer to him, and grumbled, “…I may not have lost any pounds…but I’m willing to bet your old man and big brother Brett lost some…once those things started eating them alive…”

Absolutely appalled by what he just said, I think Alex and I were ready to take Preston’s example and rush the son of a bitch ourselves. But then…more gunshots. And more. And not just single sniper shots…but automatic machine gun fire! Orders were being shouted from above, and soldiers began running down the hall outside of the cafeteria…fully geared up for war. What the hell was going on outside?

Walker let go of my hand when he heard the gunshots and quickly dropped down to his knees, scampering under a nearby table, curling up into a tight ball and covering both his ears with his hands. People began to gravitate towards the windows. Even Rainey and Donovan became more distracted by the commotion outside than whatever vendetta they had going on with one another. Something was happening. We’ve heard frequent gunshots before…but nothing like this.

This can’t be good…

Published October 14, 2018