Everything hurt. Everything. His back, his head, his stomach. His head. He pried his eyes open, sensing someone standing over him, breathing hard enough to be heard over the music still blasting through the rave’s sound system.
“Come with me if you want to live.”
Jack just kept staring at the hand stretched out to him, trying to understand how, exactly, the sun got all morningish when clearly a few minutes ago it had been kind of orangey dusk.
“What? Is the party over?” he asked the silhouette holding… a pipe? Covered in blood?
Oh. Green pills. Right.
Jack’s been dancing for hours and is, at last, beginning to feel it in his legs. He slows a little and feels a hand drag along the back of his neck. He can’t hear her over the music, but reads her lips: Come with me. He follows her into the edge of the woods in a daze. From the music, from tiredness from...other things.
“What is it, Lil?” he asks.
“You know what I want,” she purrs, pulling her shirt off over her head and dropping it behind her. She settles on to the ground and raises an eyebrow.
“Naughty girl,” Jack says, pulling a marker from his pocket.
She squeals quietly as he settles astride her.
“What are we going for this time? Flowers? Stars?”
“Dragons!” she answers, trying to stay still.
Jack laughs, uncaps the pen, and begins to sketch the outline across her belly.
“You owe me,” he says.
“What,” she laughs, “Getting personal with my bubbies isn’t payment enough?”
Jack smiles. “If anyone’s could have given me a rise, it’d have been yours, love.”
He’s getting relaxed and warm. The evening sun is starting to drop shadows onto his work, so he draws faster, silent except for the conversation he’s having with himself and his pen. A happy shriek and heavy, clumsy steps through the woods distract him and he looks up to see a giggling girl being carried over the shoulder of an unsteady young man. Jack pauses and stares until the man sees him.
“You’re next, Holden!” he calls with a wink.
With a heavy breath, he looks back down to Lily’s stained skin, moving a little slower.
“Oh Jackie,” she coos, cupping his cheek. “Don’t. He’s an arse. Not worthy of your beautiful face.”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Psh. ‘S nothing.”
Lily slaps his thigh and rolls out from under him. “Here,” she says, pulling a plastic baggy from her pocket. “It’ll be nothing soon enough.”
*“Just...come on!” the silhouette said, stepping across him and swinging the pipe into the head of something dreadful wearing Lily’s bra. The thing dropped to the ground. It stared at Jack across a few inches of leaves, saliva, and loam, passively waiting for a blink that’s never going to come.
Jumping up this quickly with god only knows what still seeping through his bloodstream hit him hard and made him step backward into a pile of horrid stinking used-to-be-human (random human, maybe not human, definitely not his Lily) something. He grabbed a handful of warm plaid, leaned over, and vomited up everything he’d ingested since his first Christmas.
When his stomach was clear (and after a few more minutes of painful dry clenches for good measure), Jack wiped his mouth on his arm, stood up straight, and said with only a trace of a slur, “Where we going?”
Stomping through the woods is the worst trip he’d ever had, and that included the time he took three tabs and started scrutinizing the Captain Fantastic LP cover. That was not good at all. But this was a whole new level of bad. There were all these things that look like his friends from the rave, but they’re all grey and stenchy, but not field stenchy--actual rotting corpse stenchy. Not that he knew what a rotting corpse smelled like, personally. He’s just kind of guessing based on roadkill. And then, his trip guide (who’s kind of dishy in a soft, pale way) kept hitting those things with his pipe. With the undead shells of humans being taken out by a literal pipe, Jack was deeply disappointed with his subconscious’ laziness at concocting symbolism.
“Yes yes no more drugs,” he muttered. “Play some Ed Sheeran now why don’t you.”
The guide, who was dragging him along by the wrist, stopped and looked at him. “What?”
“I said I get it,” Jack sighed. “No more drugs. Can we stop now? This is a bit much, don’t you think?”
His guide let go of him and stared for a moment. “Wait...do you…Do you think you’re dreaming?”
“Well, I mean, who’s to say what is ‘real’ and what isn’t? Isn’t the spirit world just as ‘real’ to the dreamer as the--”
“What’s your name?” his guide asked abruptly but with a kind of sympathetic gentleness Jack found oddly disturbing.
“Jack?” Jack asked.
“Hi, Jack. I’m Eugene. Do you know how long you’ve been out here?”
“Well…,” Jack began. “We came out on, um, Thursday I think? So two days?”
“Three. It’s Sunday. How long were you asleep?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, losing his air a little. He’d never felt this grounded during a trip before. It’s almost like he’s completely sober, if a little hung over. But clearly not. Clearly.
“Couple hours? I came out for a lie down about five in the evening.”
Jack didn’t know that sadness and frustration could exist at once, but there it was on his guide’s face.
“Jack, it’s seven a.m. You’ve been asleep for thirteen hours.”
Well then. Quite the disco nap.
“Listen,” Eugene said in a voice both soft and firm. And shaking. That’s...not right Spirit guides don’t get scared. That’s kind of the point of them, isn’t it?
“Something’s happened,” Eugene sighed and seemed to try to collect himself. It’s terrifying and disorienting and...beautiful. “There’s...there’s been a virus or...something…and--”
“You’re real,” Jack blurted, mouth outrunning his brain. “I’ve never wanted to shag my spirit guide before. And he’d also never be American.”
By the slack-jawed look on Eugene’s face, Jack surmised that he’d said that out loud.
“Okay, first of all, I’m Canadian, and--”
But over Eugene’s shoulder, Jack saw something familiar. He’s drawn away with a sort of hysterical need to touch something that makes sense.
“Daley!” Jack called. He grinned back at Eugene. “It’s my mate, Daley. Come meet him.”
“Jack--” Eugene warned.
“Hoy! Daley! Not looking good, brother. You get into what I did? I tell you--”
“Jack!” Eugene called, more urgently as Daley turned. Caught in the mass of rubber and hemp bracelets were small fingers ending in purple nails, dragging a tattooed arm along behind.
He’d tried--god help him he tried --to make sense of this. But Daley was grey and groaning and there’s just nothing in his eyes and oh god what is it?
“What’ve you got there? Is that...?”
Jack stopped dead, staring down at the detached arm.
“That’s...it’s Yishara’s…” Jack lost his breath, choked on his own horror . “Daley, what have you done?”
Jack felt an arm wrap around his waist from behind and start walking him backward, just slow enough that they didn’t trip.
“It’s not Daley anymore, Jack.” Eugene sounded so sad, Jack wondered if he knew Daley, too.
He didn’t fight. He just kept walking backward until he felt himself spun around and shoved in the center of his back.
“Run,” he heard. So he did.
After a few breathless meters, Jack heard a wet thud and something falling into the leaves. He turned around and immediately regretted it.*
“Come back,” Jack whines, stretching out an arm. “What’ve you got better to do than me?”
Daley pulls his shirt over his head on the way out of the room.
“Sorry, Jack,” he calls, pulling his trousers out of the kitchen. “I’m meeting Yishara in an hour.”
He sits heavily next to Jack on the bed and leans in to press a playful kiss to his forehead. “And some of us actually bathe.”
Jack freezes in the midst of reaching for the half-burned joint on the night stand. He feels cold and numb and a little sick. “Shara?” he asks, as evenly as he can.
Daley’s smile falters into comprehension, then pity.
“Oh Jack,” he says gently, like he’s talking to a child. “I thought...I mean I thought you knew it wasn’t…”
“Does Shara know?” he tries not to spit.
“Of course she does,” Daley says, pulling the blanket up a little higher around Jack’s waist. “She has a bit of fun, too.”
Well, at least Jack doesn’t have to feel guilty. At least.
Daley wraps his arm around Jack’s waist. With his other hand, he retrieves the abandoned cigarette, lights it, takes a drag, and hands it off to Jack. “I’m sorry, mate. I thought we were sorted. We’re cool, though? Now?”
Jack snorts. “Of course.”
“It won’t happen again--”
“Go.” Jack forces a laugh. “Get out of my flat, you bloody slag.” He hears Daley’s answering laugh as the door opens.
Jack stares at the wall smokes.
“I am so, so sorry,” Eugene said. “I am so sorry. I--”
There’s only a small movement behind Eugene, but it was enough to send Jack sprinting. As a mangled, braceleted hand wrapped around Eugene’s ankle, Jack brought his boot down on Daley’s (not Daley’s, its. its its its) head.
“Oh my god,” Eugene gasped. “Jack, thank you, I...” But Eugene didn’t finish. In the silence afterward, a song wrapped its way through the woods, into Jack’s brain, and around his guts. That song became the moment Jack Holden turned into something else. He turned to face Eugene completely changed. He was calm, tense determined. He’d seen himself do a shadow of this on the cricket pitch. Everything narrow and clear, his body loosely wound into readiness so intense he felt like he would rip through his own skin.
“I know where we need to go,” Jack said.
They found the vans on the other side of the small wood in a field striated with muddy tracks. There were two of them, and upon seeing their condition, Eugene saw Jack’s confident march falter and slump. The vans were beyond salvage. One was turned onto its side, windows smashed, and debris trailing from its opened back doors. The other was upright, but was missing two wheels and a steering column.
“Oh,” he heard Jack say with a startling laugh. “Well. I don’t know what I was expecting. There were five, but I guess…I guess I’m glad someone got out of here.”
Eugene sighed, his thoughts far less charitable.
In the overturned van, they found a couple of backpacks, a crate of bottled water, condoms, drugs, clothes both outlandish and practical (the sequined tank top they left, the jeans and t-shirts they took), more condoms, a torn sleeping bag, a tent that’s too heavy to lug comfortably, more drugs, energy bars, and buckets of ephemera. Jack slowly started filling one of the backpacks with impractical notions--photos, a cheap necklace, paint, a leather bracelet, a plastic dinosaur--examining each one and chattering to himself about who they belonged to. Eugene felt his chest tighten with impatience.
“Leave that stuff,” he said in a tone he immediately knew fell just short of barking. “We’re not going to need it. It’s just more weight.”
“Okay, but I know whose these are, they’re going to want--”
“They’re not going to want anything, Jack, they’re probably dead! Now help me find things we can use and let’s go. Before it gets dark.” Eugene winced and bit his lip. It had to be said. Just...maybe not like that.
Jack sat back on his heels and breathed slowly. “Look,” he said. “I don’t know you. You’re just another bossy American who thinks he’s, he’s...he’s Rick Grimes or something. These?” He holds out a flyer advertising a DJ--a young, pretty woman wearing welder’s goggles and cat ears, “are my friends. And we’re sorting through their belongings, not sticking up the bloody Tesco. This isn’t just stuff, okay?” He reached back in and pulled out a broken rubber sandal with a design of distorted skulls drawn onto it. “I drew these shoes. I drew them three weeks ago before shagging the guy they belong to, and then I stomped in his head this morning to save you. He’s dead. I left them. This?” He held out bracelet from his bag. It shook with the trembling of Jack’s hand. “This belongs on that arm he was dragging. She may be alive out there and I would really like to give it back to her because Daley gave it to her for her birthday. And since I killed him--”
Jack froze and choked on a sound that was something between a heave and a sob. “Oh god, what’s happening?”
Eugene felt his fingertips tingling with shame. He would have made the same choices if he were home. He probably would have made the same choices two days ago. He’d always been stuck here, between efficiency and compassion, and had often failed. Just not so spectacularly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sitting. “Can I…?” He placed a cautious hand between Jack’s shaking shoulder blades. “Let’s just sit here a sec, okay? I’ll...I’ll tell you what’s been going on.”
“I know, Dad. I will. I’ve already got enough for a few days...of course...I know...you be careful, too. Dad? I’ve got another call. I’ll call you back as soon as I get there, okay? Bye.
Eugene throws the duffel bag of water, bandages, and food into the trunk of his rental next to the suitcase from the hotel and slides into the drivers’ seat. He checks the address on the hotel stationary and types it into the GPS.
“Oh hey, Jordan,” he says, and cringes at the way his voice goes lighter. Three dates, don’t get cheesy. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m going to stay out in Nottingham until this blows over. You staying in Vancouver? … Yeah, that’s probably true. The bugs would probably kill you before the flu did.”
He passes three petrol stations, each with longer lines than the last and decides to keep going. By the time he hangs up the phone (“Okay, stay safe. Later.”) the stations have gone from crowded to deserted, signs apologizing for the empty wells. Eugene’s anxiety grinds around and around in his belly, up his chest, into his throat as the number of cars abandoned begins to outnumber those still moving. He tries to call his friend in the cabin. Voicemail. He tries again, but this time, he gets a message saying all the towers are overloaded. Later, when the car sputters to a stop in the middle of a silent road, he tries again and listens as the other end rings and rings and rings. When he hangs up, the growing dark is silent but for the rustle of leaves and distant groans. With a shaking breath and the certainty that he will not see another sunrise, he locks the doors and waits for morning.
He chronicled the outbreak and his subsequent walk as casually as he could, shoving distance into the space in his chest he knew the horror was trying to occupy. By the time he caught up to the rave (“...then I stumbled over some idiot asleep in a field and here we are”), they were leaning against the roof of the van, Jack dry-eyed and smiling faintly, Eugene drained of the last of his anger.
“You feel ready to try the other van” Eugene asked.
Jack jumped to his feet, all traces of fear or sadness completely erased, replaced by a dimpled grin that almost, but not quite, reached his eyes. Eugene felt a little breathless, a little confused.
“Indeed I am! I will say, though, I think this is Alicia’s van, so if you find a tub of Jelly Babies in there, do not eat them. They’re not from the sweets shop, if you understand.”
“What do you think” Jack asks. “Good weapon?” He’s holding...something like a paddle? He’d heard a joyful cry of “W.G.!” from inside the van while he was sorting supplies into definitelys, maybes, and absolutely nots. The van, despite being stipped for parts, was relatively untouched inside. He wondered if it had something to do with the bright smear of gore clinging to the gear shift.
“Maybe?” Eugene answers. “Can you get any force behind that...thing?”
Jack cocked an eyebrow and smirked in a way that, were it not the end of the world, Eugene would have felt challenged to wipe off his face, one way or the other. Jack’s wrist barely moved as he flicked the weapon around his hand, into an upward grip. With a stroke like he was parting water, or gesturing to introduce an accompanying royal, he swung the narrow edge of the bat into the van hard enough to split the paint. “I thinks so. Maybe.”
Eugene allowed for just a split second of awe before dragging it back down to cool. He’d been worried about Jack tagging along. He seemed like such liability--so young, so mercurial, so utterly soaked in illegal chemicals. But beyond that nagging basic human decency that would have made Eugene drag him along anyway, this was really something useful. Very, very...useful. He coughed. “Yeah...yeah, I’d say you’ve got the hang of it.”
Jack was insufferably pleased with himself. He didn’t even try to stay clamped down to match Eugene’s aloofness, but had on a face-splitting grin that Eugene, despite his best efforts, would like to wipe off in a very clear way.
When everything was packed as efficiently as possible, they stood looking up at the bright, grey sky.
“Where were you heading?” Jack asked, blinking up into the glowing clouds.
Eugene watched him for a moment, measuring out his options. Tell the truth? That he didn’t know? That he was lost? Jack squinted over at him patiently after a long silence.
“I...I’m not sure. I don’t...really know this area. Do you…?”
Jack scowled down at the bat in his hands and said hesitantly, “Well, I’ve got a mum. And she’s...I can’t imagine how she’s doing in this. I want… I mean, if she’s safe. I’d…” He sighed and let it hang. “I just need to know.”
Eugene nodded and pulled his pack on. “Well okay. We’ve got a few hours before dark, and I’m sure we can find someplace to stay the night before then. Which way?”
“North,” Jack said. “You coming?”
Eugene shrugged. “Might as well. I mean, you kind of owe me one. Might as well hang around and cash it in.”
Jack laughed, walking backward toward the dirt path the vans had followed in. “I owe you? Are you sure you didn’t eat some of the Jelly Babies?”
His eyes were so bright that Eugene just kept looking, feeling something begin to unspool that felt, in a small way, like the beginning of relief. Eugene shot back something he wouldn’t remember, and Jack’s return volley was less for wit than for the sound of a human voice to fill the heavy air. And for that, Eugene was grateful.