With all the commotion going down, it would have been near impossible for Alex and me to have found another romantic moment within it all. Not to mention the fact that the curiosity was killing us both, in terms of figuring out what the hell was going on.
Hillside? I thought that place had been obliterated two weeks ago! Out of all the horrors going on outside of this place, the one story that has been told and retold and has remained pretty consistent in its outcome, has been the tragic story of Hillside High School, and the heartbreaking slaughter that happened there. It had become legend in many of these sanctuary hideouts. An example of how quickly everything could go wrong if we're not careful.
Who survived? And what are they doing here?
I'm ashamed to think it...but I might actually find myself on Sergeant Brower's side on this one. Maybe letting them in here with the rest of us isn't such a good idea.
Alex and I followed the 'noise' as an armada of soldiers rushed towards the entrance, heavy artillery in hand, safety's off...ready for anything. We weren't the only ones who were intrigued by this. People began crawling out of the woodworks to see this caravan of new arrivals, hoping to get a glimpse of the deadly threat they might pose by even showing up. Not even the rescue team of soldiers was given the benefit of the doubt. They, too...were met with harsh scrutiny and suspicion.
There was a lot of shouting going on. The arrivals being mercilessly bombarded with orders and commands that they couldn't possibly understand. Alex and I watched as fear and caution collided in a clash for dominance in a world that had already gone mad. And this new convoy was definitely a sight to see.
The refugees were beyond disheveled. Shaken to the point of 'in shock' silence. Streaks of caked on dirt, corrupted with rivers of sweat, mixed with patches of caked on blood...almost black in color now...practically forming a surface scab on their skin. And their eyes...I had never seen eyes that were so void of hope before.
What the fuck happened in that place to make them look like that???
We watched as some of the soldiers from the convoy begged our security team to get some of these people some medical attention. But they weren't having any parts of it.
"What???" One of the soldiers shouted. "With all due respect, Sir...you sent us out on a rescue mission! You told us to bring back as many uninfected civilians as we could! We completed our mission! Now let us in!"
"Things have changed..." Said the commanding officer. "We're stepping up on checks and evaluations as of right now. That includes you too, soldier."
"Who gave this order?"
"This is coming directly from Sergeant Brower."
"I need to talk to him!"
"Not possible! You need to go through quarantine!" The officer told him.
"What are you TALKING about? We're both on the same SIDE! These people need immediate medical attention...!"
"We'll be in charge of what people need when we get everybody checked out."
"I want to speak to Sergeant Brower!"
"You're not speaking to anybody until you pass inspection!"
"These people are DYING!!!" A female soldier shouted from the background, tending to some of the wounded, but not bitten.
"Better them than the rest of us..." The officer said, and everyone within earshot held back a collective gasp at the heartless lack of compassion.
This, obviously, didn't sit well with the people in the convoy who had just spent tireless hours attempting to rescue the few people that they could from the Hillside massacre...and a shouting match flared up immediately. Which escalated quickly into people getting in one another's faces, then shoving, then a few fist fights between soldiers before others hurried forward to suppress the conflict before it got WAY too far out of hand.
Things were beginning to fall apart. Little by little, sure...but the threat outside of our gates was persistently eating away at our foundation. It won't be long before people start tossing their rule books of civilized etiquette right out the window. The temperature is rising...and we can all feel it.
As I looked to the other end of the hall, I noticed the woman with the red blanket again, her shoulders slumped up against a nearby wall in the hallway next to one of the convenient fire extinguishers. The same lady who was brought in on the back of the same army truck that brought me here. She was still trembling. Still nearly catatonic from what happened to her and her lost husband. Looking at her face, and then looking back at the crowd trying to come in from the Hillside convoy...the expression was almost identical. She kept that red blanket wrapped around her shoulders so tightly. You would have guessed that she was freezing cold by the way she seemed to use it to protect her from the rest of the world. But...it was super warm in this part of the school. It's Summertime. Beads of sweat hung suspended across her furrowed brow...and yet she clutched that red blanket like a priest would clutch his Crucifix in times of crisis. Or perhaps during a full blown exorcism. It's a weird thing to say, but I was almost fascinated by her pain. As her eyes stared blankly out at the floor in front of her, I was convinced that the loop of horrific images in her mind were preventing her from actually seeing anything at all. Just...repeated screams without end. Her eyes were like a computer monitor, turned on with no actual computer attached to it. It gave me the creeps, to be honest.
And our plan was to let an entire convoy of those people in here?
"Things are getting kinda crazy around here." Alex said, directing my attention back to the arguing military ahead of us.
"Yeah..." I replied.
"Do you think what they said is true?" He whispered, making sure nobody else around us could hear him. "Do you think we might already have people in here that are infected?"
"I don't know. I mean, how could we tell?" The door to the makeshift hospital ward opened up to release a few of the people they had been monitoring for any signs of contamination. They had been poked and prodded and examined for hours, and were finally deemed worthy of joining the rest of the general population. One of them, was the silent boy they had brought in not long ago. To be honest, I was surprised that they let him out. The way he was acting earlier, he seemed like he was ready to snap and flip out into a murderous tantrum at any moment. He was hardly the poster boy for healthy adjustment in times like this. And who would expect him to be. He seemed so young. Even to me. Even by Preston's standards, to be honest.
"Step aside! Step aside! Coming through!" Said a group of six extra soldiers, apparently called to the scene to deal with the new arrivals just in case some sort of upheaval took place. I could tell they were on edge. Not just from the stressful pitch of their strained voices and the white knuckled grip they kept on their guns...but also from the urgent brutality they used to muscle their way through the crowd, pushing us aside with a harsh elbow or a shoulder that threatened to knock us off balance if we hadn't braced ourselves for the impact. "MOVE IT!!!" They hollered.
They even knocked Cooper and the silent kid up against the wall with a super aggressive 'bump' that seemed totally unnecessary to me.
Cooper was compensating for his own balance while giving the boy as much support as he could on his shoulder, but this intrusion caused them to roughly fall back against the wall on the side of the hallway. A move that caused something to fall out of the boy's jacket pocket and onto the floor. Nearly at my feet.
I was quick to move my foot back at first, as I didn't know what it was and it might have been heavy. Instinct, I guess. The last thing I needed was to get my toes smashed so I'd have to limp around the school for the next day or two. But when I looked down, it looked like an average cell phone. A bit outdated, sure...but it was the kind of cell phone that a parent would probably give to a boy that age just to keep in touch. Or, at least, that's what I'm assuming. It must have been the same one that they were charging up in the infirmary, because as soon as I reached for it and turned it over, the screen came to life and seemed to be displaying a series of text messages for me to read. No lock, no password...just the screen that was left up whenever the phone went dead.
I just glanced at it briefly. Cooper and the mute boy kept walking as though nothing had happened. "Hey!" I called out, holding his phone in my hand. "Hey, ummm..." They just kept walking, barely able to hear me over the shouting of the soldiers at the gate.
So I looked down at the digital conversation and tried to figure out what was going on. All I saw was:
Eddie? Eddie who? Doesn't matter.
I looked up at the name at the top of the message box and figured I'd give it a try. "Hey...Walker?" I said, and the boy actually stopped walking, causing both him and the soldier to look back over their shoulders at me. "Is that you? Are you Walker?" I asked.
For a very brief moment, it almost looked as if the spell his trauma had over him had been broken. As if this was the first time he had heard his own name spoken aloud for quite some time, and was shocked by the nostalgic recognition. But then...I held his phone up to show it to him. Letting him know that he dropped it. And as weak and brittle as he seemed before, I saw him suddenly get a grand boost of energy, wriggling out of Cooper's arms and swiftly heading towards me with a scowl of desperation on his face.
He immediately snatched the phone out of my grip, grunting angrily as he ripped it out of my hand. I gasped slightly, wondering if I would have to defend myself from an attack or not, Alex's hand gently grabbing me by the elbow and waiting to step in if I needed his help.
But...Walker just looked at the screen of his phone and the conversation he was having when it ran out of juice...and his eyes misted up. His bottom lip began to quiver, and he clutched the phone tightly to his chest to hug it as if it was the most precious thing on Earth. As the soldier, Cooper, walked over, he asked us, "Do either one of you boys know him?" We shook our heads. "This is important, ok? Take a good look at him. Are you sure you don't know this kid? You've never seen him around school? Never crossed paths with him? How about this other boy, Eddie? Do you guys know anybody by the name of Eddie?"
As tears began to roll down the boy's cheeks, I felt truly disturbed to say, "I'm sorry, mister. I just saw him drop the phone and I took a guess. I swear."
"Did you need a password or anything to unlock it?"
"No, sir. It just...it was already on." I told him.
Alex nodded, and Cooper figured that it sounded reasonable enough. I think he really wanted to help the boy out, he just didn't have any way of knowing how. "If you boys hear anything...you come find me. Alright?" We nodded in agreement, and he turned Walker's slim shoulders so as to look him in the eye. "Hey, buddy. 'Walker', is it? I like that name. A name like Walker has real character." The boy was more concerned with holding his cell phone close to his chest than responding to the soldier's soothing voice, but at least he had gotten his attention. "I'm going to take you back to the gym, and you and I are going to get ourselves a decent dinner. Alright? If we're lucky, we might even be able to get ourselves a couple minutes' worth of sleep. What do you say?"
Walker still seemed shielded by a thick layer of distrust and never-ending dread...but slowly nodded his head, causing a few extra tears to fall.
Cooper took a hold of him and they headed down the hallway as Alex and I backed away in the other direction. Trying to maintain a balance of caution and comfort seems like it's going to be such an impossible feat once the utter shock of this whole situation officially wears off.
What do we plan to do when that happens?
I noticed Alex reaching into his pocket to check his own phone for any messages from his parents. The act of looking at your phone can be contagious, I suppose. I could already tell that he was both scared and disappointed that he hadn't heard from them yet, and even though he tried to hide the emotional turmoil from me with a fake nonchalant grin, I could tell that it was eating him up inside. So much so that I found myself desperate to check my own phone to see about my parents as well. I know that Cain told me not to worry so much. But every hour that passes without any contact from them, is an hour that something terrible might have happened to them. It's hard to believe that there was a time when we had faith in the idea of 'safety' in our daily lives. We never knew what horrors it would bring to have the veil lifted on our sense of security. Now we're forced to deal with it...and I have to admit...I don't think I'm ready.
"Ok, c'mon you guys! You're gonna shake up my soda!" Came a voice from in front of the main library. It was never a challenge to pick out Preston's signature 'chirping' when you heard it. It was almost as though his voice never had any intention of changing from its boyish pitch during his lifetime. It squeaked with pride every time he spoke, and it was almost endearing to know that such purity had been so well managed and protected in a boy like that.
However...this was also a trait that bullies were drawn to. Something that they couldn't help but to abuse and exploit every chance they got. I doubt Preston would ever be able to outrun that storm. He was too adorable to even complain about it.
Alex and I saw two older boys, maybe about 16 years old or so, tossing Preston's backpack back and forth between themselves...too high for Preston to reach as he hurried back and forth between them. Preston was trying to keep a straight face and make it seem like it was just a silly game that they were playing. As if he was a part of it.
"Seriously, I need my bag, ok? I know we're having fun and stuff, but I need it. Cool?" Preston said.
His reasoning with them was pointless. One of the boys held his backpack out in front of him and said, "My bad. Here ya go, kid. We were just goofing around." But as soon as Preston walked over to reach for it, he laughed in his face and tossed it over his head to the boy standing behind him. "Oops."
Preston was annoyed, but he seemed to be a pro at not letting his frustration get the best of him. "Ha! Good one, dude! But...um...seriously, can I have it back now? Please?"
"I don't have it." The boy said. "He does."
Little Preston turned around with pleading eyes, and said, "Can I have it back? You can throw it to me. I'm ready."
The other boy said, "I don't want to throw it. That would be rude. Here ya go. Come get it. I'm sorry." But when Preston walked over, he just threw it to his buddy again. It was disgusting to watch.
Alex and I were both outraged at the situation, and couldn't understand why anybody would want to pick on poor Preston when he never did anything to hurt anybody...but before we could walk over and hand those two assholes a verbal beat down, we were surprised to see Donovan step in and actually 'catch' Preston's backpack in mid air. He was tall enough to do so, and he handed it back to Preston without any effort whatsoever.
Both teens seemed annoyed by the fact that an older, taller, boy had brought an end to their little game...but as Donovan approached them with a penetrating glare, they knew better than to make too much of a fuss about it. "Are you two finished being jackasses now?" Donovan asked.
"Who the fuck are you?" One of the boys asked.
"Does it matter?" He replied.
Preston, feeling a bit emboldened now that he had a 'protector' in his midst, peeked out from behind Donovan's shoulder and screeched, "Yeah! Who the freak are YOU guys??? That's the real question!"
Donovan said, "Game's over. Alright? Find another way to beat the boredom around here."
"Yeah! Beat the boredom! Jackass!" Preston echoed, getting a stern look from Donovan to silently tell him to keep quiet before he ended up instigating things even further.
One of the boys puffed his chest up a bit, and followed his testosterone driven instincts as he took a step in Donovan's direction and looked him directly in the eye. "Nobody asked you whether the game was over or not. Why don't you mind your own business?"
Alex and I were surprised that he even talked to Donovan in that way. He didn't seem like the kind of guy you'd want to play any macho games of chicken with. Donovan just gave the boy a slight smirk, and said, "You really don't want that kind of problem with me. Trust me. Save face...and walk away. Before you get yourself into a nasty situation that you can't get out of."
"Yeah! Walk away!" Preston chirped. "Don't touch my bag anymore!"
"Preston..." Donovan grunted.
"Sorry. Go ahead. You got this!"
When the boys didn't back down, Donovan stepped closer, looming over them with a fearless presence that caused them to take a step backwards. "Is this what you guys do? When times get rough...this is how you deal with it?"
Preston said, "This is how you deal with stuff??? You LOSERS!"
Donovan continued, "You feel helpless? Like you're not in control? So in order to get your feet back on solid ground you decide to come out here and bully the first eight year old you can find in order to feel like big men again?"
Preston lightly tugged on Donovan's shirt and whispered, "I'm thirteen..."
Donovan's head snapped back and he growled, "Do YOU want to handle this, or do you want ME to handle this?"
"No way. Go ahead, dude. You're doing great." Preston said, with patting him awkwardly on his shoulder.
One of the boys told him, "Your little boyfriend's got a big mouth on him. He should probably watch his back."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever you say. Why don't you two go find yourselves a new hobby? In case you haven't noticed, there are more important things going on right now other than your selfish need to feel tall in a world of dwarfs. Go sit in a corner somewhere and try to think about what really matters." Donovan told them, and just as Preston was about to repeat one of his potent warnings, Donovan reached out behind him to cover his mouth with his hand.
The boys took the hint, and wandered off from the conflict, knowing that they couldn't go toe to toe with Donovan eight then and there, even if they wanted to. Donovan could be a mean son of a bitch when he wanted to be, but every now and then, I guess that inner brutality could be guided to work in our favor. He looked over at Preston, who was beaming with pride and joy, and gave him his backpack back. "Stay out of their way, will ya? You're easy to pick on."
"Not anymore, I'm not!" Preston grinned, and put his hand up for a high five. A gesture that Donovan ignored. Instead, he started to walk away, and Preston was right behind him. "Say, can I call you 'Donnie'?"
"No! Why the fuck would you want to call me that?"
"Since we're friends now, I thought it would be a cool nickname. Donnie. Short for Donovan. Or maybe something else? Can I call you something else?" Donovan kept walking away, but Preston kept nipping at his heels, regardless. "Sometimes people call me 'Pres' for short. You know, for Preston. Not many people. But then again, I don't know many people. Surely, somebody else out there calls you Donnie. Right? I mean, am I right?"
"STOP talking! Jesus!" Donovan said. He almost seemed to regret interfering at all...not that it hurt Preston's feelings at all. I doubt he even noticed the not-so-subtle rejection. It was actually kind of funny to watch.
As Donovan walked further down the hall, Preston looked back and waved at us. His bright eyes widened and he almost looked as if he was ready to leap right out of his own skin at the very sight of us. He was so easily excited. But, we were standing still, and his new 'hero', Donovan, was walking away...so he was stuck for a moment. Like a puppy being forced to choose between two doggie treats. He eventually beckoned us, saying, "Hey! Come on you guys! Let's go with Donnie!"
Donovan growled, "STOP calling me Donnie!" But again, Preston was unaffected by his gruff exterior. Donovan had exposed a hint of a soft belly under that sarcastic armor of his...and Preston latched on to it as tightly as Walker did his cell phone mere moments before.
Alex shrugged his shoulders in the cutest way, his green eyes bribing me into following along just for the fun of it. It was a heavy temptation to collapse into his arms and kiss him again right there in front of everybody. But my common sense won the battle, and I decided that maybe this wasn't the time or place for that. At least not yet. I'd have to kiss him with the intimacy of my facial expression until we found another chance to be alone.
Strange thing is...as much as I was loving the idea of everything being just 'Jake and Alex against the world'...I suddenly couldn't imagine not having Preston be a part of that dynamic anymore. Come to think of it, despite a rough intro, even Donovan appeared to be the kind of guy that we might want on our side. You know...just in case we needed him at some point.
The first time I ever went to Summer Camp was when I was eleven years old. That's the only time that I can remember making friends and finding connections so easily among strangers. It's a skill that I think diminishes greatly after your tenth birthday. I used to think that you never got that ease of human connection back once you've lost it as a kid. But, for some strange reason, I'm feeling that instinctual nudge all over again. Even now in the worst of times...there's the potential for building new friendships. New alliances. Hell...maybe even a new 'family' of sorts.
Who could have imagined that such a thing was possible...before the world went to shit?