As Cain saw some other people walking down the hallway from both directions, he lightly took a hold of my arm and pulled me a bit further to the side. Lowering his voice to nearly a whisper, he said, "Look, me and Jamie have been doing a little bit of eavesdropping around here whenever we could find a decent place to overhear what was going on. We don't have a whole lot of info, but we've got enough to know that this building is nowherenearas secure as they want us to think it is. I'm trying to figure what's got them so freaked out all of a sudden, but, so far, no such luck. I mean...there was this other school where they tried to fortify the joint the same way they've got us set up here...and it turned into a totalshit showbefore they were able to get people out alive."
"You mean Hillside?" I asked.
His eyebrows went up. "Yeah. You heard about that?"
I told him, "Afewtimes, actually. Apparently, they got overrun without warning. But it wasn't like here...with zombies busting through the front gate and launching an attack. They had..." I started to say it, but something told me to keep that rumor clogged up in the back of my throat instead. "...Umm...there was, like..."
"What?" Cain asked me. "What is it? Tell me. What did you hear?"
Shit. It sucks that my brother is able to read me so well all the goddamn time.
Already committed to my confession, I looked around the hall and waited until there was a decent break between passing civilians before I said anything that might further 'damage' our illusion of safety in this place. I said, "Some of the generals, soldiers, and even some of my teachers and the doctors here...they think that the menace was coming frominsidethe compound. Not outside."
Cain wrinkled his brow for a second. "You mean...they actually let people in who were bitten? People who got infected?"
I said, "No. Not really..."
Cain moved closer and asked, "How is that possible, then? Was there a leak somewhere? Did they find a way in? Or...?"
I came clean, and I told him, "Cain...they're blaming it all onus. People LIKE us. Teenagers. Probably me more than you, but..."
"Wait...hold on...what are you talking about?"
"The people who are studying the outbreak are linking the infection to adolescents, Cain. They're saying thatWEare the cause of everything that's going wrong with the world right now, and they're making moves to stomp us all out before we can do any more damage."
Cain reeled for a moment. "But...but that's silly. You guys didn't do anything wrong by being young?"
"I don't think they care." I said. "We're the scapegoats now. Word is passing around from compound to compound that the younger generation is corrupted to the point where we're going to be the end of civilization as we know it. And they'll do whatever it takes to stop that from happening. Even if it means rounding us up and putting us under permanent quarantine, away from the rest of the population." Cain looked distressed by what I was saying, but moved in to give me a hug around my shoulders. It felt good...but did little to calm my growing fears. "I don't know, Cain...it feels like things could fall apart at any moment. And there's nothing we can do about it."
"Don't you worry about it, bro. Ok? I don't know what I'm going to do just yet, but I promise to keep you safe. You hear me?" He said.
"Things are getting weird around here, Cain. More and more every day. I can feel it."
"Don't you sweat it. Alright?" He assured me. "Listen, I heard that the military is going to let intwomore caravans full of refugees, and that's it. After that, they're planning to cut off any further access to this location. At least for now. They're already en route, so it's too late for the soldiers to turn them back now. I think we should stay put and see if Mom and Dad are on one of those trucks before we make any big decisions about where we're gonna go from there. But...once that's settled...I say that you and me make this place a distant memory and head out on our own. You get me?"
"Wait...you wannawhat?" I asked.
Cain took a hold of my hand and led me down the hall to one of the staircases going up to the third floor, and then we hurriedly snuk our way across to an empty classroom so he could guide me over to a nearby window. "You see that? Right over there. Look."
He pointed out the window...and I saw what he had been talking about just moments earlier. Soldiers, covered, head to toe, in large white suits, breathing masks and gloves, boots...seemingly airtight from the looks of it. And there were jeeps and trucks with 'bodies' in the back. Bodies piled on top of one another, like old rugs or sacks of Salvation Army clothes donations. There was a huge bonfire in front of them...burning the grass of our once beautiful high school football field, while other soldiers with guns looked on, and sprayed down the sides with water hoses to keep the fires from getting out of control. It was such a strange thing to bear witness to. It really was.
I mean...these werepeopleonce. Actual people. Probably the same neighborhood folks that I had crossed paths with a million times before in the street, or at the mall, or possibly even in this very school. Men...women...children...
To see them laying there so...so 'lifeless'...it created a certain level of detachment from their humanity. A detachment that I almost felt ashamed of. Deeply ashamed. I saw the suited soldiers pick up the bodies, two by two, and toss them onto the fire. No care. No concern. No disgust. They were just inanimate pieces of meat to them now...being charred and blackened and adding to the billowing clouds of toxic smoke that they their mauled and disfigured brethren had released into the air. They barely looked like bodies at all. They were more like forgotten rag dolls in the back of some kid's closet. Void of life...limp...useless.
The idea of it gave me a chill.
Cain rested his hand on my shoulder and said, "I hate to say it, Jake...but the winds are changing in this place. We don't want to be around when this little last minute solution comes burning down. They won't hesitate to toss either one of us up on that bonfire if they start thinking we're the biggest threat to this shelter and everybody in it."
"So you wanna run? Do you think they're just going to let us walk out of that front gate?"
"The way they've been talking lately, I don't think they'd have any problem atallletting us go out there. It's people gettingINthat's their biggest priority now."
"That's Crazy, Cain. Where would we go?"
"Anywhere but here. That's where. I say we pick a day, leave just before sunrise, and find us some place strong enough to keep the monsters at bay, while keeping us close enough to town to grab some extra supplies if we need them. A lot of these soldiers are fatigued beyond belief right now. If we catch them wearing themselves out before a shift change..."
I had to stop him. "What are youtalkingabout??? You can't be serious about any of this."
"Have you got a better plan?" Cain said.
"We stay here, we remain safe for as long as we can, and we FIGHT if we have to. That's a much better plan."
"Jake..." Cain rubbed his eyes, and lightly grabbed me by the shoulders. "...You're still not getting it. We're fucked. I mean, do you understand that? We don't even know if we have a functional government right now. Whatever illusions or conspiracies that we've ever had about some elite 'Powers That Be' group of puppet masters having complete control over what happens in the world is fading away.FAST! They are not in control of this. They never were. All the cops and the courts and the politicians and the military in the world can't help us. The veil's been lifted. And the more people become aware of the fact that how much money they have in the bank doesn't matter anymore...the quicker they're going to turn on each other. Or, like you said...turn onus."
I heard what he was saying, but was trying to rev up my denial like an old lawnmower in order to tune him out. "I don't think we should leave. I think that's a bad idea..." I said softly.
But Cain just returned my attention to the burning bodies on the football field. "Did you ever think that you would see something like this? Did you see it a couple of days ago? Of course not. The military was keeping their activities under wraps. They didn't want a panic on their hands. They didn't want to have to explain to the rest of us what was going on right outside these walls on the 50-yard line. But look at them now." He said, just as they tossed a few more 'logs' on the fire. "It's not so secretnow, is it?"
"What does that even mean...?"
"It MEANS that they're getting desperate, Jake. They were trying to keep the peace in the beginning, but now? Now they've only got objectives to reach. Orders to follow. They're burning hundreds of dead bodies out in the open, Jake. They're not hiding it anymore. That's the change. Right there. Right in front of our faces." I felt tears beginning to well up in my eyes as he forced me to watch. "How long do you think it'll be before brazen acts like this become normal? An average Tuesday. How thin is the line between doing this to dead zombies and doing it to anybody else who stands in the way of them maintaining order in a place like this?" He turned me to face him again, and looked into my eyes as the first tear rolled down my cheek. "Do you have any idea how many people are populating this high school right now? We can't hold out here forever. I don't know if you've thought about it or not...but I don't think there are anyfarmersout there harvesting crops at the moment. Nobody's fishing. Nobody is working the slaughterhouse or the processing plants. Nobody is driving a truck to deliver canned goods to your local grocery store. All of that is done. The system is broken. How long do you think it'll be before we run out of food and supplies? Huh? Do you think some dedicated worker is running the electricity grid right now? Do you know if anybody is running the plant to purify and keep our water clean and free from deadly germs? There is no WAY that the military can do all of these things at once,andkeep us safe from the threat outside these gates,ANDstop the rest of the civilians in this shelter from turning on one another once the going gets tough. People will get suspicious. Paranoid. You might think that bullying and gossip and mean-spirited bullshit is all just high school stuff...but trust me, Jake...a 15 year old bully turns into a 30 year old bully. And a 30 year old bully turns into a 60 year old bully. Same shit. Different day. Already, Jamie and I have seen people going through technology withdrawal. They're still upset that they can't get on Youtube! What do you think those people are going to be like when the food supply gets low and we're down to a few meager rations per day?" Block him out, Jake. Don't listen. Having some hope, somefaith, is the only thing holding us all together right now. That's when Cain said, "You remember reading 'Lord Of The Flies' in the 7th grade?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I do."
"Then you alreadyknowhow this story ends. Don't you?" He replied, solemnly. "It won't be long before this little experiment of ours collapses in on itself, and if we don't get out before the shit hits the fan...we may find ourselves trapped in a corner somewhere where we can't find any way out at all."
Already feeling a sickness growing in the pit of my stomach, I mumbled, "This doesn't feel right, Cain. I don't see why we have to run. There are good people here. People that can help us."
"This isn't a Summer Camp, Jake. This is survival of the fittest. We're a part of the game whether we like it or not." He sighed deeply to himself, and he told me, "Look...I know how you feel about your new crush and all...and if you HONESTLY think that Alex can keep a secret,maybewe can find a way to take him with us. But that's it. No more."
"What about my friends?"
"We can't. There's no way. The more baggage we have with us, the more liabilities we have to look out for. Plus, we'll run out of our own supplies twice as fast if we try to bring your whole squad with us." He replied. "If you think we can bring Alex along and he won't rat us out...then, fine. I get it. I really do. But the others? The others have to stay here. Ok?"
The thought of leaving them behind made me even more nauseous than before. Donovan stood up for us. Walker trusted us. And Preston? Poor, innocent, little Preston. This felt wrong. Everything about it felt so upside down. But Cain was pressing so hard that I slowly nodded in agreement...if only to buy me enough time to think.
"Thatta boy." Cain said, giving me a grin while ruffling my hair. "You keep this quiet, ok? We stick around to see if Mom and Dad show up first, and if not...we exit stage left and we don't look back. We can contact everybody when they get the phones working again." I didn't say anything. I just stared at the floor, wondering what the hell I was agreeing to. "Hey...we're going to get through this. I'm looking out for you. You get my back, and I've got yours. We Weavers never say die, right?" He held out his fist for a bump, but I hesitated, sadly. "Right? C'mon...let me hear it."
"Weavers never say die..." I replied, barely above a whisper.
"That's what I'm talking about." He smiled. "Now, don't get lost in this place. I'll be in touch some time soon. Me and Jamie are going to get a plan together and figure a way to get outside the territory without running into the horde. Keep this quiet for now. Even from Alex. I'll let you know when we've got our shit together."
Again, I nodded...and I turned to take one last look out of the classroom window, watching the soldiers using long streams of flamethrower fire to rekindle the blaze of corpses on the field. Watching the mound 'settle' and fall apart, as muscle, tissue, and bone...broke down and were slowly turning to ash. Ashes that flew up into the sky and began to flutter back down to the ground like blackened snowflakes.
I didn't say anything else to my older brother. He called after me to cheer me up, but I just walked back out into the hallway and headed for the staircase so I could rejoin my friends in the cafeteria. I mean, I know that I told Cain that they were barely friends at all...but, if I had to be honest, it didn't take very long for me to consider them 'family'. How was I supposed to leave them behind to face whatever horrors they might have to face if things go South in this place? How could I live with myself if I ran away and didn't tell them where I was going? I just...I never thought that running away was an option. We're supposed to be safe here, right? That was the whole purpose of the shelter. That was the whole reason that they brought us here.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs and walked back out into the hallway on the first floor, I noticed the people sort of shuffling along in both directions. Practically using the lockers for balance as they all looked exhausted and off balance. Some of them with sad and worried faces...others with no expression at all. I noticed the lady with the red blanket from when I first arrived at the school. She seemed...so brittle. As if she were ready to breakdown mentally at any moment. Her eyes connected to mine, and the overwhelming agony in her soul was almost enough to weaken me in the knees. Geez...what the hell happened to her and her family?
It was then that I heard a bit of scuffling from around the corner behind me. I turned to see two soldiers holding a boy with longish brown hair between them. His feet were on the ground, but each soldier had a firm grip on his arms...a third soldier walking behind them with a weapon drawn. It wasn't pointed at the kid's head or anything, but it was clearly ready for 'action' if it came to that. The kid was maybe thirteen years old...and that's being generous. He had a stressful look in his wide eyes, saying with a shaky voice, "But...b-b-but there's nothing wrong with me! Honest. It was just a cough. I have dust allergies, that's all..."
The soldiers never slowed their pace down. One of them said, "Once we get you to the infirmary and get you checked out, then they can help you with that."
"I don't need help. I've got medicine. My dad brought it with us. It's just over in one of the sleep areas. If you just let me go back and get it..."
"No need for that. The medics will get you what you need."
"But...I just TOLD you...Ihavemedicine already. Talk to my dad! He'll tell you!" The boy dug his heels into the floor a bit and began to struggle, but the soldiers on either side of him were QUICK to tighten their grip on his arms. So rough that it looked as if they were about to cut off his circulation.
"DON'T resist!" The soldier told him. "Move." The boy's bottom lip quivered with fear. "MOVE!!!"
He had no choice but to comply, and as they passed me in the hallway, I found myself lowering my head, afraid to look them in the eye for fear that they'd see me and possibly drag me off somewhere too.
What is happening in this place?
Could Cain be right? Are we rapidly reaching the point of no return? The military doesn't even care about witnesses to this kind of thing. It's reaching a point of 'do or die'. Period. The facade is vanishing...and only the objective of keeping this facility secure remains.