He gives me what I guess is supposed to be a reassuring smile. I return what I hope passes for a confident nod. Then we go.
Double-timing straight up Main into the burned-out, debris-strewn, rat-infested, boarded-up, graffiti-decorated, sewage-stained guts of Urbana. Overturned cars and downed power lines and trash piled against foundations by wind and water, trash blanketing yards and parking lots, trash hanging from the winter-bare tree limbs. Plastic bags and newspapers, clothing, shoes, toys, broken chairs and mattresses, TVs. It’s like a cosmic giant grabbed the planet with both hands and shook it as hard as he could. Maybe if I were some evil alien overlord, I’d blow up all the cities, too, just to get rid of the mess.
We probably should have swung around this hellscape, used the back roads and open country—I’m certain Ringer would have—but if she and Cup are gonna be anywhere, it’s the caverns, and this is the shortest route.
Quick and quiet, I’m thinking as we trot down the sidewalk, our eyes cutting left to right and back again, quick and quiet.
Four blocks in, we come to a six-foot-high barricade blocking off the street, a jumble of cars and tree branches and smashed furniture festooned in faded American flags, I’m guessing thrown together as the 2nd Wave bled into the 3rd, when it dawned on people that our fellow humans were a bigger threat than the alien spaceship that soared two hundred miles overhead. It blows your mind, how quickly we slid into anarchy after they pulled the plug. How easy it was to sow confusion and fear and distrust. And how goddamned fast we fell. You’d think a common enemy would have forced us to set aside our differences and band together against the escalating threat. Instead, we built barricades. We hoarded food and supplies and weapons. We turned away the stranger, the outsider, the unrecognized face. Two weeks into the invasion and civilization had already cracked at its foundation. Two months, and it collapsed like an imploded building, falling down as the bodies piled up.
We’ve seen a few of those, too, on our way into Urbana. From piles of blackened bones to corpses wrapped head to toe in tattered sheets and old blankets, just lying there in the open like they’d dropped from the sky, alone or in groups of ten or more. So many bodies that they faded into the background, just another part of the mess, another piece of the urban vomit.
Dumbo’s eyes swing back and forth restlessly, searching the dark for green fireballs. “Messed up,” he breathes. Despite the cold, sweat shines on his forehead. He shivers as if gripped by a fever. On the other side of the barricade, I call a break. Water. A power bar. I’ve developed this thing about power bars. Found a whole case of them in the safe house and now I can’t get enough of them. We find a small gap in the makeshift wall and nestle inside, facing north down Main Street. There’s no wind. The sky is clear, stuffed with stars. You can feel it deep in your bones because it’s older than your senses: the end of winter, the Earth sliding toward spring. Before I became Zombie, that meant prom and cramming for finals and the nervous chatter in the hallways between classes because graduation was coming, a different kind of apocalyptic event after which nothing would ever be the same.
“You ever been to Urbana, Dumbo?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I’m from Pittsburgh.”
“Really?” I’d never asked. It was the unwritten rule in camp: Talking about our past was like handling hot coals. “Well. Go, Steelers.”
“Naw.” He bites off a hunk of power bar and chews slowly. “I was a Packers fan.”
“I played some, you know.”
“My brother played baseball. Shortstop.”
“I quit Little League when I was ten.”
“I sucked. But I kill at e-sports.”
“You know, like COD.”
He shakes his head with a smile. “No. Call of Duty, Zombie.”
“Oh! You’re a gamer.”
“I was borderline MLG.”
“Oh, MLG, right.” I don’t have the first clue what he’s talking about.
“Max Level, Prestige Twelve.”
“Wow, really?” I shake my head, thoroughly impressed. Except I’m totally lost.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about.” He crumples the wrapper in his fist. He glances around at the garbage littering every square inch of Urbana, then slips the wrapper into his pocket. “There’s something that’s been bugging me, Sarge.”
He turns to me. His exposed eye is wide with anxiety. “So, way before their ship showed up, they downloaded themselves into babies and didn’t ‘wake up’ inside them until they were teenagers.”
I nod. “That’s what Walker said.”
“My birthday was last week. I’m thirteen.”
“For real? Damn it, Dumbo, why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve baked you a cake.”
He doesn’t smile. “What if I got one inside me, Sarge? What if one of them is about to wake up in my brain and take over?”
“You’re not serious, right? Come on, Private, that’s crazy talk.”
“How do you know? I mean, how do you know, Zombie? And then it happens and I waste you and I go back to the house and waste all of them . . .”
He’s losing it. I grab his arm and make him look at me.
“Listen to me, you big-eared son of a bitch, you go Dorothy on me now and I’m gonna kick your ass from here to Dubuque.”
“Please,” he whines. “Please stop bringing up Dubuque.”
“There’s no alien asleep inside you, Dumbo.”
“Okay, but if you’re wrong, you’ll take care of it, right?”
I know what he means, but I go, “Huh?”
“Take care of it, Zombie.” Pleading with me. “Kill the mother-fucker.”
Well, happy frigging birthday, Dumbo. This conversation has given me the heebie-jeebies.
“It’s a deal,” I tell him. “An alien wakes up inside you, I’ll blow your brains out.”
Relieved, he sighs. “Thanks, Sarge.”
I stand up, hold out my hand, and help him to his feet. His arm swings around and shoves me to one side. His rifle comes up. He’s aiming at the car dealership half a block down. I lift my weapon, close my right eye, and squint through the eyepiece. Nothing.