You sit at home on your couch, perched on the edge of the cushions as your whole body—rigid with what must look like EXCITEMENT—faces the television. Your DAD is standing a few feet behind you in the kitchen, quietly drying plates with a rag, but you don't think he's paying much attention because he, too, has his gaze fixed on the screen. Nearby, your LITTLE SISTER bounces in a plush chair, enthusiastic more because you're supposedly happy than due to any real understanding of the SITUATION about to unfold before the world, broadcast live to homes everywhere. She's only ELEVEN YEARS OLD, after all.
The reporter's usual drone suddenly falters as the camera shifts, and in an instant you're staring at the familiar green grass lawn of English Industries' main laboratory building. You forget all about keeping a neutral face, then, because this is the moment you've been waiting for since the summer's end.
Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and you are NINETEEN YEARS OLD. You've spent the last year and a half at Washington State University, studying pre-med as you steadily pursue your dream of becoming a top-notch doctor. The top-notchiest. The best. Someday, you might even like to have your name signed in gold as the recipient of a Nobel prize—but you know better than anyone that success can't be made without a little (or more) hard work.
Last summer, however, this far-fetched and most likely UNATTAINABLE GOAL became a fraction closer to QUITE POSSIBLY POSSIBLE when you were selected as one of twenty from a pool of over six thousand global applicants to participate in an internship at the world-famous English Industries medical research labs in New York. There, the final testing procedures on a vaccination that could quite possibly RESHAPE THE FIELD OF MEDICINE AS A WHOLE were taking place, and you had your bags packed the day after you received the letter.
Now, as you watch, one of the most highly-respected men in the field of medicine steps into view behind a podium onscreen, and despite your apprehension you can't but grin ever-so-slightly at a few fond memories he brings to mind. His name is DOCTOR SCRATCH, and in addition to being the establishment's co-proprieter he was your personal mentor at the labs. By the look of his perfectly-coifed blonde hair and snappy white suit, you find it hard to imagine that he’s anything other than a middle-aged Hollywood heart-throb, let alone one of the most innovative figureheads of modern science.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen—and, I suppose, a good morning to others," he begins, flashing a dazzling smile to the various cameras and crews nearby. "I'm sure it's no secret what I'm here today to discuss, but, as always, formalities are a must." There's a pause, and his thin lips quirk upwards for a factional second. "Ten years ago, my esteemed colleague and business partner, Lord Caliborn English, immigrated to the United States following the death of a loved one four years prior at the hands of pneumonia, an increasingly-common illness spread through either bacterial or virus strains. While treatment for the condition has been available for nearly a century, there is—there has been—no cure, no vaccination. And countless lives, young and old, have been lost to both unexpected contractions of the illness and the body's inability to handle the infection. Much like the common cold, pneumonia has been a plague for generations, ever-changing, ever-killing.
"But after throwing himself into research and work, Lord English has—after fourteen years—performed what can only be described as a miracle. He, along with our team of highly sought-after medical professionals, has been able to successfully immunize, in a matter of speaking, both test mammals and eventually human patients against the root cause of pneumonia. By feeding small, concentrated doses of a relaxation hormone directed by a specific protein marker into the brain stem—where neurologists have pinpointed the location of cells electrically controlling the functions of the lungs—a person's alveoli can be trained to resist causes of inflammation that lead to pneumonia. And, in testing, it was also discovered that the dose can also help the recipient built a stronger resistance to the root causes of yearly-rotating influenza viruses.
"It is an amazing leap—a permanent solution that could not have been possible without the hard and dedicated work by both our own scientists and those from around the world who flocked to help our research. We are, without a doubt, grateful, and it is thanks to them that I, on behalf of English Industries, can announce with pride that soon every man, woman, and child will be immune to the disease. In mere months, the world will rid of the curse that has tormented humanity for thousands of years. Thank you."
He smiles again as cameras flash, and several reporters rush to the podium hoping to wedge a few questions into his retreat. The Doc is having none of that, though, and he just waves to the crowd before disappearing back into the building. All the while, there's a smooth grin plastered across his face.
Your father laughs, slapping you lightly on the back as he tells you how proud he is, but you just shake your head and return to the kitchen. The dishes won't do themselves.
You try to put up a good front—you really do—but when your family isn't looking your smile falters.
Later that night, you hole up in your old room, having endured continual praises from your father and subtly-proud snark from your sister with as much happy reception as you can. In truth, you are VERY WORRIED, but you have no idea how to explain why. You've decided instead to keep your mouth shut for the time being, because your feelings would most likely make you sound paranoid and tired, two things that might in turn make your family less inclined to trust your judgment.
With a sigh, scrub your blue eyes under the wire-framed glasses you've had since middle school, and swivel lazily in your desk chair. It is nearly Christmas, and you're home for the holidays for the first time since graduating high school. You had hoped the weeks off would be a happy time, and for the most part they really have been! Just... not this evening. You wonder idly if it's possible to make yourself sick by thinking too much, then realize you should probably already know the answer to that question anyway.
There's a ping from your sleeping computer, and the screen lights up as a Pesterchum window opens on your desktop. Although your own Chumhandle is set to idle for good reason, you can't help but feel a little RELIEVED at the interruption.
— carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 23:47 —
CG: HEY, SHITSTAIN.
CG: GET YOUR ASS ONLINE.
CG: WE NEED TO TALK. LIKE, SERIOUSLY TALK. WE NEED TO DISCUSS A REALLY FUCKING BIG ISSUE, ANDWE NEED TO DO IT UNHINDERED BY THE USUAL SNARKY BULLSHIT YOU, FOR SOME GOD-AWFUL REASON, BELIEVE ADDS ANY KIND OF SUBSTANCE TO ACTUAL REAL CONVERSATION.
CG: FUCK YOU.
CG: I KNOW YOU’RE THERE, JOHN.
EB: hey, karkat!
EB: what are you doing up so late?
EB: wait, that's a bad question.
EB: i don't think you ever sleep :)
CG: I REPEAT: FUCK YOU.
EB: wow, rude! did you message me just to yell?
EB: i'm here!! what did you want to talk about?
Even though you're more than sure you already know where this conversation is about to go, you don't mind letting your best friend take the lead. Once he gets whatever he needs to say off his chest you'll have your chance to speak—but until then he probably won't let you get much of a word in edgewise. It really doesn't bother you, though. Karkat is a good guy once you get around all seven layers of his foul language and standoff-ish attitude.
You've been pals since you met last summer during your time in New York, and the two of you hit it off fairly quickly after realizing you were both entirely out of your element in the EI department you'd been assigned. He isn't aiming to become a medical doctor like you—instead, he's busy studying genetics at a university in Pennsylvania. It's pretty neat, you think.
CG: DON’T PLAY FUCKING STUPID WITH ME, JOHN. I KNOW YOU SAW IT.
EB: wow, that sounds kind of creepy, karkat.
EB: are you stalking me?
EB: should i warn my family that there is an angry midget watching us?
CG: FUCK YOU.
EB: but, yeah. in all seriousness, i did.
EB: i saw the interview, i mean.
CG: BY THE END OF THE WEEK, EVERY MOTHER-CLUTCHING BRAT UNDER THE AGE OF TWENTY-ONE WILL HAVE GOTTEN THE VACCINE.
CG: WHICH MEANS WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO AT SOME POINT, TOO.
EB: i know.
EB: the labs are giving it out free to those chain clinic places.
CG: I HEARD THE SHITBAGS DOWN AT THE FDA ARE MAKING IT A SCHOOL REQUIREMENT.
EB: that's not going to be put in place until next year, though.
EB: i think???
EB: wait now i'm not sure.
CG: EITHER WAY WE’VE GOT WHAT SIX MONTHS AT MOST? I’M NOT PUTTING THAT SHIT IN MY SYSTEM.
EB: i know, and neither am i. have you convinced your brother?
CG: YEAH, IT WASN’T THAT HARD.
CG: HE DOESN’T REALLY TRUST ANYTHING FUNDED BY THE GOVERNMENT THESE DAYS.
CG: THAT’S PROBABLY A GOOD THING.
EB: god, i wish my family was as easy as kankri.
EB: my dad keeps saying he's proud to trust something i worked hard on, and my sister doesn't actually have much of a choice if my dad makes a decision.
CG: DID YOU TELL THEM WHAT WE SAW?
EB: kind of?
EB: i hinted at it.
EB: sort of ran around the subject.
EB: but i think they got the message.
CG: DON'T FUCK WITH ME, JOHN.
CG: CLEARLY THEY NEITHER RECEIVED THE MEMO NOR UNDERSTOOD THE MEANING BEHIND WHAT WAS PROBABLY THE WORST EXCUSE FOR A PROPER EXPLANATION EVER.
EB: i can't just tell them, okay!!
EB: they'll think i'm losing my mind or something.
CG: AS STUPID AS YOU ARE, AND AS DEPRESSINGLY AFFECTIONATE AS YOUR RELATIVES TEND TO BE, I THINK THEY WILL BELIEVE YOU.
CG: WHY WOUDLN'T THEY?
EB: i don't know.
EB: the whole thing was just too surreal, and then there's the fact that i waited this long to say anything. that's kind of suspicious if you ask me!
CG: WHICH I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO, YOU RETARDED LUMP OF QUIVERING BODILY FLUIDS.
EB: in hindsight, it wasn't the best plan.
CG: GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER, JOHN.
CG: THIS WHOLE PILE OF FUCK IS GOING TO BLOW UP IN OUR GODDAMN FACES SOON, I CAN FEEL IT.
— carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 00:12 —
You sigh and swivel around in your chair a bit, not really sure what to do with yourself. You know what you should do—but you don't. Do it, that is.
Sleep won't come easily tonight, you can tell, so you take your chumhandle off idle and end up chatting with your cousin Jade well into the morning. She and your mutual cousin Jake are coming up to Washington with your grandparents to spend the holiday, and you can't wait to see them. Convincing that part of your family not to get the vaccination wasn't hard, because your grandparents—for all their science and technical knowledge—don't want anything to do with the English name.
That might be a card you can play again, you think.
Your family tree is more like the Whomping Willow than anything, all torn apart and re-stitched by feuds and divorces and untimely deaths. You've been lucky enough to live a relatively stereotypical suburban life with your father and sister, only barely feeling the effects of what your grandma calls the "bad juju" of your mother's side of the family. Your cousins, however, are a different story.
Only when sun begins to peek through the Washington State morning fog and your dad begins rummaging around downstairs do you finally crawl into bed. The best part about nights without sleep, you think, is the knock-out rest that usually comes after. The kind of dreamless black that leaves you both sore and refreshed when afternoon finally rolls around. It never lasts quite as long as you'd like, though. Sometimes you wish you could sleep forever.
You don't sit your family down for The Serious Talk until over a week has passed since the Doc's televised press conference. Thus far, you've managed to keep them away from the clinics with some brief bullshit explanation to that you'd rather not accept free doses. Instead, you say, you’d like to fund the company by purchasing the vaccination yourself (or at least letting your insurance pay for it). It doesn't take much convincing to highjack the task of setting up an appointment with your family physician. You don't actually call the office at all.
The holiday is less than four days away, and your cousins should arrive on Christmas Day. It's now or never, because you're half certain your eccentric extended family might make a mess of things with their own opinions and interjections. As much as you love them, your grandparents can be… passionate about certain topics.
Thankfully, your sister is home from school on her winter break, so you only have to wait until your dad gets home from work to gather the two of them up. You meet him in the kitchen, and after a few shouts up the stairwell Jane joins you. They can tell that something is bothering you by the way you don't respond as whole-heartedly as you should to their teasing, and as you fiddle with the remote to your small kitchen TV you try not to think about the fact that you're suddenly the center of their attention. After a moment, you finally manage to mute the volume, and then suddenly you can't stall anymore.
"So. Uh. I think it would be in everyone's best interest if we didn't get the English vaccination. Thing. That I worked on last summer." You speech is stilted, and wow you're nervous.
Your dad blinks, but doesn't get the chance to say anything before your sister cuts in with an incredulous, "Why? That's stupid—I don't want to get sick."
"Yeah, well—you might get even more sick if you take it, so shut up and let me finish. Please," you bite back, sticking your tongue out for maximum maturity points. Dad's eyebrows raise, and he politely asks you to elaborate.Whatever argument you and your sister had been about to drum up is effectively cut off, and after a moment of scrambling for words you continue.
"So. Yeah. There was some stuff that happened last summer that I... didn't exactly mention?" A nervous laugh bubbles its way out of your throat, and you swear your voice hasn't changed pitch that drastically since you were fourteen. "I guess I wasn't really allowed to, because of all the confidentiality papers we had to sign before and after we left, but I trust you guys.” That part isn't exactly true—not really. You'd just needed some excuse explaining why you'd waited so long to start talking. (But your family doesn't have to know that. Nope.) “I think safety's probably a really important thing right now, so it's probably in everyone's best interest that I break a few rules." Your sister snorts, and your father shushes her lightly, urging you to continue.
And you do.
The tale starts short and stilted—boring and pointless. You dance around the important parts and linger too long on the details that don’t matter, but when your family stays quiet—for the most part—as you relay the events from months ago, you start to get lost in your memories and speech slowly becomes easier.
When you first received the letter accepting your internship application as one of twenty selected students, you were beyond ecstatic—who wouldn’t be? True, you were nervous, but the moment you'd read your department placement you’re sure you made a few less-than-manly noises. Your name had been added to the neurobiology roster—not your specialty by any means, but an opportunity too good to pass up—and you were set to work in the testing labs. The testing labs! It was the most hands-on experience someone like you could ever hope to get, working side-by-side with seasoned professionals as they mapped out possible side-effects and made last-minute tweaks to the next big thing in the industry: the EI Vaccine.
The labs, themselves, were laid out like a university campus in middle-of-nowhere upstate New York. Trees, grass, hills, and the occasional stream littered the expansive grounds around each department's building, and as the summer’s live-in help you and your fresh new colleagues were assigned sleeping areas and roommates. You had landed Karkat—the only other intern assigned to the neurobiology sector—as your dorm-buddy, and the two of you had hit it off fairly quickly. By the end of that first day, it was like you'd been friends for years, even if Karkat himself refused to accept it.
Jane interrupts with a sweet comment about how she already knows all this and gosh she has a Christmas bake sale to stock and will you please hurry up. Dad pats her head and you just roll your eyes.
Your internship had lasted nearly the entire summer, but the work was exciting and time had passed quickly. You were offered so much to learn, both about the general field of medicine and the special pleasures of laboratory research, and you couldn’t get enough of it. The facilities were brilliant, the atmosphere was brilliant, the people were brilliant—all working toward the same better future, happier humanity. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity filled with every positive adjective anyone could pull from a Merriam-Webster thesaurus.
Until, of course, it wasn’t.
It happened three days before you were supposed to leave. You and Karkat had taken to staying late in the archive room after finishing your assigned tasks. As interns, you were allowed to stay well passed closing, and you spent hours poring over notes and writings from men and women you had, just months ago, only dreamed of meeting face-to-face. The stores of endless information were like some kind of rad intellectual drug, and your superiors had done more than encourage your interest.
Like the responsible teenagers you were, that night you'd planned to lock up the building before back to your rooms—but you never got the chance. Sometime before twelve, the door had opened and you’d been quickly ushered into the halls by a woman you’d met only once, maybe twice. As far as you knew, she worked in a different sector, and you'd never really had any reason to cross paths. She was young, ordered you to follow in a brusque half-English that suggested she'd been born somewhere on the Asian continent, and barely give you the chance to argue as she began subtly manhandling you through the corridors.
You were so confused neither of you really remember to protest (or at least ask where you were going) until you were already making your way down one of the metal stairwells toward the lower levels of the building. She hadn't responded. Instead, she'd just flashed her badge—a green card that put her office on the same level as the Doc's—and that was that.
You'd only been to the basement once before then. Aside from the programming offices and storage rooms, the place wasn't much more than a concrete cavern lined above with curling fluorescent lights. Thinking back, you realize that should have been the moment it occurred to you that something was wrong—a strange, silent woman leading two unsuspecting interns to their doom? The set up would have been perfect for a cheap horror flick… or a bad porno.
Eventually, the woman stopped in front of a metal-plated door, identical to every other one along the hallway, and swiped her EI-issued identification badge through the card receiver. Without waiting to check to see if either of you were still following, she pushed inside as soon as the lock clicked open.
Halfway down the next hallway, it finally dawned on the both of you that this was definitely a place you were not supposed to be.
For the first few feet, the walk was almost identical to the labs on the upper floors, but as you made your way deeper inside things began to change. The solid, white doors became glass-plated, surrounded by windows—and, before long, entire rooms were visible through clear walls along either side of the corridor. Most were empty.
Some were not.
You saw jungle cats, primates, wild dogs, and massive reptiles under harsh scrutiny by a few sporadic scientists and doctors, but no one you passed questioned your presence. They seemed too wrapped up in what they were doing to care.
The longer you walked, the less frequent the other professionals became, and each room you passed grew steadily emptier and emptier.
Until, of course, they weren’t.
In the blink of an eye, it was like you had stepped out of the lab and into a prison. Glass-plated rooms on either side were occupied by people, one or more, in various states of catatonia. It was penitentiary frozen in time—men, women, and children stood or sat, staring off into space. It was a world-class lobotomy convention.
It was frightening.
But then, every so often, you would pass a cell housing something quite the opposite—a detainee shrieking and screaming and clawing at the glass, eyes wide and thirsty and frantic and inhuman.
The woman had stopped, then, in front of one of these particular rooms, and you watched in silence as the man inside tried again and again to climb the concrete walls, blood streaking down the white-painted bricks as he ripped his nails off against the stone.
Only then did she finally turn to look at you both, unfazed by the chaos as you frozen at the sight of it all. Her stare was hard and silent, daring you to say anything. Daring you to run away, you thought.
Next to each door, there was a small, paper plaque like the ones you could find in any common hospital. But that there were no names listed, only numbers and doses—lists of chemicals and ingredients and oh God what have you walked into you have no idea oh God.
"It didn't take Karkat and me long to figure out where we were after that,” you say, rubbing your eyes tiredly. “I mean, it had all the make of a testing facility, and even though EI is always working on something new everyone was pretty focused on the pneumonia shot. We just—"
Suddenly, movement on the TV behind your father catches your eye, and you falter, scrambling for the remote. You can't help the curse that slips out as you struggle with the volume button, completely ignoring your concerned Dad as he calls your name.
But you don't care, because you're too focused on the Breaking News headline that glares Game-Over-red across the screen. "Shit," you say. "Shit, shit, shit. I have to call Karkat." Without waiting for an answer, you bolt from the room, leaving behind the drone of CNN as an unnaturally-frazzled evening reporter tries to relay the incoming information as quickly as possible.
...ver the past eleven days, more than two-point-six billion people across the globe have received English Industries' revolutionary vaccine, just over two-hundred million of which are United States citizens. Despite that number amounting to only a fraction of the world's estimated eight billion in population, the repercussions are—and will be—significant. As of this evening, there have been over six million reported hospitalizations as a result of what can only be the highly sought-after treatment, and the number is continually growing. If you or a loved one ha...
Your family doesn't follow as you sprint upstairs with the wind on your heels, and you can only assume they're watching unfold what you and your best friend predicted months ago.
It takes a few tries to get Karkat on the phone, but when he finally does answer he somehow manages to sound absurdly calm about the whole thing. You suspect he's had his freak-out already, while you yourself are only now just hitting full-on panic mode. Neither of you can talk long, however, and it doesn't take much to agree on one thing unconditionally: get out.
You've both known for a while that something big—something horrible—has been on the horizon for months, now. You'd never gotten any sort of explanation from the woman, no instructions telling you what to do with what you'd been shown or any real clarification as to what it actually was, so you'd had to come up with your own speculations and theories and worries. None of them had been pretty, all of them sounded like they'd been pulled from the script of some gag-inducing 1950's B-movie.
In the days following your basement-bound adventure, both you and Karkat had retreated out of whatever small spotlight the labs had to offer. It was in your respective best interests to act like nothing had changed, you decided—that nothing was different. Everything on the facility grounds was state-of-the-art, high-tech, top-of-the-line. There was no way they—whoever they might be—didn't have security footage of your entrance into whatever that basement room was. And with your photographs came every sliver of information about your lives, on-record for your initial admission into the internship program.
Only after your flights had safely landed back in your respective areas of residency and several months had passed without incident did you realize your lives probably weren't going to end messily in some random freak accident—the kind meant to keep people quiet.
With that epiphany had come a wave of paranoid what-ifs and questions, and the eventual formulation of a contingency plan. You had neither the ability nor the knowledge stop it—whatever it was—because you'd already waited too long for your stories to be believable. And, of course, you had zero proof that you weren't crazy. But you knew you could at least try to keep yourselves and your families safe when the time came.
After less than fifteen minutes of frantic flailing and shooshing and panicking and virtual papping over the telephone line with Karkat, you make your way back downstairs to the kitchen, much calmer than before. Your dad and sister are still glued to the television. Calling on the cool, confident doctor-face you've spent more hours than you'd like to admit practicing in front of your bathroom mirror, you clap your hands and grin, all teeth, and promptly announce that the three of you are going camping. Starting tomorrow morning. For an as-of-yet-undetermined length of time.
No one questions it.
Some part of you is grateful for the sudden chaos. It makes convincing your family a hell of a lot easier. You know, though, that the countdown you've long-since been denying has already in motion for days. The metaphorical clock is ticking, and you're not really sure you want to know what will happen when the timer hits zero. You are aware, however, that you'd rather not be around to find out the moment it does.
With a quick shout over your shoulder that you'll be back soon, you race out the door and to your car, peeling out of the driveway before the front door to your house has even closed. To take your mind off the panic still half-running through your brain, you call your cousin in hopes of catching her before she boards her plane to the United States. She doesn't pick up. Not wanting to sit in silence, you flick on the radio and shift to one of the national news stations. After just a few minutes of listening as you battle gridlock, you realize that things are falling apart quicker than you had anticipated.
With global health suddenly at mass-risk and every piece of EI-funded medical research under question, transportation and communication systems are at a near stand-still until "trusted" authorities can make an accurate assessment of the vaccination's side effects. Emergency meetings have been called up between world government health authorities in an effort to work together, and thirteen countries have already issued arrest warrants for Lord English and his colleagues.
You can only hope that the rest of your family made it into the country safely—or at least retreated back to your grandparents' isolated island.
Not soon enough, you break out of the interstate bumper-to-bumper traffic and shoot into the local hospital's packed parking lot. As a medical student, you've been spending more and more time here on your days off, volunteering in the free clinic and running errands for the doctors. You haven't come to help, though—no matter how much you want to. There's nothing you can do anymore.
An empty school messenger bag in hand, you run in through the entrance marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, even though you technically don't work in the facility. Now, your only goal is to get in and out without being noticed—because people here know that you worked with the vaccine last summer, and that could cause some major problems. As far as you know none of the interns are being charged with anything yet, but with all the uncertainty circling around the company you're well aware could change at any moment. The halls are busy and crowded, nurses and doctors shuffling half-comatose patients between rooms amid a plethora of stereotypically hospital-grade injuries and illnesses. You're reminded of the cells, and suddenly you feel like you're going to be sick.
You push forward and keep your head down, ignoring the growing urge to throw up or scream or run away or option four: all of the above. No one is paying attention to you, too wrapped up in their own cases as the frantic tension hanging thick over the whole place—over the world—slowly builds.
It doesn't take much time to find what you're looking for. The fifth-floor supply closet is the largest in the building, tucked away in the back of the maternity ward because apparently they could spare the space. The passageways, normally quiet, are almost silent now because whatever extra help usually on-hand has been sent below. You slip inside the large room unnoticed and immediately begin to load up, stuffing rolls of gauze and disinfectants and bags and needles and vials of basic-to-upper-grade medical provisions into your pack. You have no idea how long you'll be gone, but you do know from the stories your grandparents have told that more often than not it pays well to be prepared.
When you've gathered everything you can carry, you slide back out of the room and walk as casually as you can toward the exit. (And by casually, you mean with just enough panic to fit with the flow of the crowd but not so much that you draw unnecessary attention to yourself.) You're twelve steps from freedom when you're spotted. It's the first-floor receptionist—a nice girl you took out to dinner once—and she stands up, toppling over the chair behind her desk. "John!" she shouts, and as heads start turning in your direction you duck behind a tired mother ushering along three kids. Before the girl has the chance to chase you, you're already bolting through the entrance toward your car.
Your next stops are no less chaotic, and soon you've got your trunk packed with bags from the local Safeway, where you stock up on preserved food and fresh-water jugs and anything else you can think of, and the hardware store. You have basic camping equipment stuffed in your garage already, but your family wilderness outings are usually backed moreso by the Harley side of your tree than the Egbert. Now, however, you don't have the luxury of their help, and you can only hope that you pick up everything you'll eventually need. While the grocery store is as jammed as the hospital, you’re lucky enough that no one (else) seems to have reached the emptied-Lowes stage of global panic.
You don't care about cost as you rack up charges on your own card, then your Dad's. Money won't matter where you're going.
You're struggling through a shopping-center parking lot, arms so filled with bags you think you've lost feeling in both hands, when your phone rings and you nearly drop everything in your fumbling haste to find it. Caller ID blinks with a goofy picture of you and your cousin taken in your middle school glory days, and your heart jumps. "Oh my God, Jade!" you breathe, holding your cell in one hand as you try to stuff the last of your bags into the trunk before they hit the ground.
"John?" she sounds frazzled, but otherwise calm. Thank fuck.
"Yeah—who else would it be?"
"No one, sorry! You just sound different, that's all! Have you been running?"
"Yeah, kind of," you laugh, because it suddenly occurs to you how surreal the whole situation is. It's like you've been moving on autopilot for the past few hours, and your cousin's voice is only just now bringing you back to earth. "Where are you? Are you alright? Did Jake and Grandma Harley make it? Are you guys all in the country now?" Soon, you have your car started and you're peeling out onto the road, phone still held tight to your ear.
"So you heard?"
"About the vaccination? Yeah—it's all over the news."
There's a pause and some shuffling on the other end of the line, and when your cousin speaks up again there's something in her tone that you can't quite place. You wonder for a second if you were too quick to feel relieved. "John? You told Grandpa and the rest of us not to get the shot. Did you know this was going to happen?"
Your breath hitches, and you just want her to answer your questions because you still don't know what's going on and you're so worried. But she's avoiding it, you can tell. You two have been so close for so long, you can pick up on things like that. It's frustrating. "No. Yes—maybe? It's a long story." You huff, blasting through a yellow light just as it turns red. "The important thing is that whatever this is, it is happening, and it's happening now, and Jesus, Jade, will just you tell me you’re all okay?"
Jade sighs, and you feel kind of bad for snapping at her but you need to know because now that you're thinking straight, grounded, you can feel your composure slowly slipping away. "...Jake and Grandma landed, but they froze all incoming and outgoing flights just after they unloaded. We're stuck on the mainland."
"Shit," you curse, swerving around some dumbass in a minivan who, for some reason, thinks it's necessary to drive at a snail's-pace in the left lane. "You guys have to get to the States and meet up with us somehow. Or head back to your house. It doesn't matter which—just get out of there and away from people. Let me talk to Grandpa Harley—is he around?"
"Yeah," she replies, and you can tell she's getting a little shaken up by the tone of your voice. You're getting a little shaken up by the tone of your voice.
One static-blur of movement on the line later, your grandfather's low, soothing voice crackles in, uncharacteristically serious when he greets you with the typical, "Hey, old boy—how've you been?"
You don't waste any time explaining what you can, and his focused-yet-gentle questions and replies have you clear-headed by the time you pull back into your driveway. You tell him your plans, and he adds input and advice of his own to help solidify things for you and your Dad and Jane. If there was ever any doubt that you had cool grandparents, it's gone by the time you both hang up with reassurances and well-wishes and proclamations of familial love. You refuse to think about how much it sounds like you're saying goodbye for the last time.
When you get back into your house, you spot your sister in the kitchen first, already busy at work loading up cloth bags with food from your pantry. Behind her glasses, you can tell that her eyes are red and puffy—she's been crying—but her face is set in a firm, determined scowl you know means she's nowhere near ready to give up. A swell of pride wells up in your chest, and you swoop in like the big brother you are (but often fail to be) and gather her into your arms, crushing her in a bear hug. She accidently drops a can of green beans on your foot, but you don't say anything because this is a touching moment, damn it, and you both need this.
For a few moments, you just cling to each other, and you want nothing more than to apologize for things you have—had—no control over. You don't open your mouth, though. Any words still left to say would sound hollow.
The garage door opens just as she asks if all of her friends are going to die, and you're so, so, so grateful when your dad comes inside the house to find you. You don't think you would be able to tell her the truth without crying too.
By the time the three of you sit down to dinner, you're all tense and exhausted, but you and Jane help Dad without complaint. It's the last meal you'll have that's been cooked in the comfort of your own home, you think. Your father doesn't bake for the occasion, and that alone speaks volumes about the situation.
You eat in silence, the only buzzing background noise coming from the television as broadcasters relay the latest details coming in from throughout the country and across the world. Reported cases of sudden catatonia have spread far and wide, but the tell-tale animalistic hysteria you witnessed in the laboratory basement hasn't made itself known yet. You hope that particular stage was a fluke, but at this point you aren't sure of anything.
As you slowly chew what might possibly be the best lasagna you've ever eaten in your life, it occurs to you that your family is completely uprooting themselves without really asking why. They're only slightly more in the dark than you about the finer details of the vaccination (because to be honest you know you don't understand as much as you think you should) so you can't help but wonder if there's some other reason they're willing to drop everything and follow you into the woods. Maybe they think you're now a criminal on the run. It kind of feels like you are, at least.
Whatever their reasons, they haven't stopped trusting you yet. It's a good sign and you're not about to start questioning miracles, so you just keep quiet.
Everyone eventually heads to bed after a close-knit round of dishwashing, but you don't go to sleep—how could you? Your whole world is starting to fall apart, and all you can do is watch as the bricks you built your life on begin to crumble. Only in the darkness of your room, wrapped up in the Ghostbusters comforter you've had since middle school, do you finally let the last of your practiced face slip away and sob. It's not pretty, it's not sweet. It's raw and painful and wet—and you're convinced it would be loud, too, if you hadn't buried yourself so far under your blankets that everything outside the cocoon is muffled and still. After an eternity, the tears stop pouring out of your eyes, but you spend another half-hour-day-month-century trembling, gasping in your sheets. When your chest hurts so bad you can barely breathe, you finally lie still, suffocating under the layers of fabric but too mentally burned out to move.
The next morning, it's clear that no one else in your family slept much, either. Your sister is stiff and pensive, and she barely says more than two words to you as you both pile the last few things (a plush animal or four; several blank spiral books and a pack of pens; the box of notes and research on English Industries’ work you've collected over the past few months, kept hidden under your bed) into Dad's car. The man himself tries to put up a good front throughout the whole thing, but you can tell he's just as tense as the rest of you by the fact that his hair is uncharacteristically mussed and he makes no move to tuck in his wrinkled shirt.
After you lock the front door from the inside one last time, you make one last sweep through the house, looking for anything else you might have forgotten. When being thorough turns into badly-hidden stalling, though, you force yourself to head to the garage. It's filled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes of memories, wood and tools from projects started by various relatives over the years, the dismantled remains of your old swingset—everything but the minivan that there's never quite been enough room for.
With a sigh, you set your house alarm and flick the deadbolt on the back door, before turning to open the car-sized entrance to the outside. Jane and your dad are already buckled in and ready to go, waiting on you, but you needed this last moment to say goodbye to the house you've called home for nearly two decades.
Even though it's still early in the morning and the daylight isn't as gut-wrenchingly bright as could be, you still have to squint as the big plastic-metal-whatever doors slowly rise. Something moves out of the corner of your eye, but you can't really tell what it is. You're not too focused on your surroundings anymore, anyway. Your brain has already moved on to the journey ahead.
When the windshield of your car comes into view, you can see your father sitting in the driver's seat, and give him a little wave. He flops a hand back tiredly, and not for the first time do you reg—
Something hits your back without warning, knocking you forward onto the concrete and pressing the air out of your lungs as you fight to catch yourself—just barely. You can't move. There's weight, heavy like led, squirming and writhing on top of you, and suddenly you're working on instinct you weren't even aware you had. You heave yourself up and reach behind you, knocking the thing over your head as you struggle to stand. It lands hard on the ground with the crack! of bone hitting concrete, and only then do you realize that it's a person.
He keeps convulsing, though—flailing and floundering to the side, trying to get away from something that isn't there, and you immediately rush forward, hoping you didn't hurt him. What the hell was he doing in our garage? you think, but you decide quickly that he was probably homeless and scared of the recent global developments and looking for shelter and—
He's still face down where he landed, but when you get close enough he turns his head to you and hisses and holy shit his eyes are yellow and he's lunging what do you do you have to get out of the way and—
You get your legs working enough to jump back just as he leaps toward you off the ground, still spitting and hissing and blinking like he can't quite see right. In seconds, you're pressed back up against one side of the never-ending box tower, and you have to take a second dive to the ground in order to avoid another round of airborne teeth and rage.
You need to defend yourself, but you don't want to hurt him too badly, so you do the first thing that comes to mind when you think self defense—you throw a punch at his face. He falters just long enough for you to get a good look at his contorted, stunned expression, and you feel your stomach drop. At some point, he had stepped back into the shadows of your garage, but the blow you land knocks him back out into the sunlight. You wonder if his skin really is that color, or if the morning clouds are playing tricks on your already-poor vision.
He flinches, hissing again, and launches himself at you again just as you start to sprint toward the car. Your father is still in the front seat, leaning forward over the dash with his fingers white-knuckled on the wheel as he yells something to you.
Your brain finishes processing what he's saying just as something latches onto your ankle and you stumble (but you don't fall you can't fall shit shit shit). The man is back on the floor, arms stretched and one hand gripping your foot. He claws at your pant leg, scratching and scratching and scratching as you try to yank away, dragging him along with you for several agonizing feet. He won't let go, though. You see his other hand reach up, and in the span of less than a moment it becomes clear to you that you won't make it out of this alive if he grabs you with all ten of his too-sharp fingers. No man should be this strong.
You reach out blindly for something—anything—and before you really realize what you've grasped you're swinging a heavy mass of stone and wood down onto the clutching arms with as much force as you can muster. The head of your grandfather's sledgehammer slams on the bones with a sickening crunch, and suddenly you're free and fleeing to the safety of the minivan's passenger seat, tool in hand.
"Fucking go!" you shout, nearly slamming the car door against your foot as you fumble for the remote garage button on your dad's rearview mirror. You click it just in time to see the man struggle to stand again—he's back in the sun, now, and you can see blood (is that blood?) pooling around his feet as it pours from the bone-puncture wounds on his forearms. The machinery is old, and you're convinced it won't shut before he gets out. "Go!"
You glance over at your father to see him staring at you with a look of horrified disbelief (and fear?), but he finally does what you say. Within seconds, you're peeling down the quiet suburban road and screeching onto the highway, heading north. The car is silent save the sound of your heavy breathing and the blood pounding so hard in your ears you're convinced your sister in the back seat can hear it. As the adrenaline fades, though, your brain begins to register the stinging pain in your leg, and you don't have to look to tell that you've got a nasty wound or five where the man—thing—was holding you down. It needs to be treated immediately, so you muster up the energy to ask Jane for the smaller first aid kit you packed with your things.
Your dad speaks up before you have the chance to call back to her, however. "Son...?" He glances over at you, and there's that god-damned look again. You want to curl up and die, but you're too high-strung and stressed to actually do so. "What was—? We should c-call the police, or something. I don't think..." he trails off, clearing his throat while you wait as patiently as you can with your leg practically pouring blood onto his cloth flooring. "Do you think he'll be alright, son?" He doesn't ask what happened, which you're grateful for. You're not quite sure you know.
Just like Jane's question, though, this is one you don't want to answer. He won't be alright—he's gone, whatever that might mean. You never saw someone quite like that in the laboratory, but you know there really isn't any other explanation for what caused it. And you also know that things just got a hell of a lot worse.