3:23 p.m. I-5 Freeway, Southern Washington State
—ongoing concerns over scattered reports of violent, perhaps drug-induced behavior in the Seattle area,” the newscaster’s voice boomed from the BMW’s Sony speakers, filling the car as trees and farmland zipped past on either side. “While yesterday’s bizarre rampages at a boarding school in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a diet clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida, did involve some individuals who have received the Amsterdam flu inoculation, the CDC says there is no relationship, as the vaccine has been thoroughly tested. But as a cautionary measure, further vaccinations have been halted until the nature of this—”
“Do you hear that?” Kendra Brookings asked. “Flu shot’s making people crazy.”
“Kendra, don’t exaggerate,” her mother said, weary of the argument. Cassandra Brookings had the cheekbones and carriage that said “runway” even if she’d opted for owlish glasses and a family therapist’s credentials. “These are just rumors. There are always rumors about the unknown. Millions of people have taken the flu shot, and there have been reports of, what? A handful of cases that probably aren’t connected at all? These people were probably deeply disturbed from the beginning. Do you have a mental disorder we don’t know about?”
Parents are a mental disorder—does that count? Kendra thought. Grandpa Joe, her mother’s father, had always said Mom had a naive streak a mile long. Kendra figured her mom had moved to Washington State to be closer to her father’s cabin up near Centralia, but Mom would never admit it. Stubbornness ran in the family, and forcing Kendra to get a flu shot on her sixteenth birthday was a perfect example.
“I know you’re nervous, sweet pea.” Devon Brookings was a big man in his mid-forties, a college athlete who now enjoyed couches more than wind sprints. He and Cassandra ran a family therapy/life coach business that did very well, thank you, but he was totally chair-bound: his waistline was still solid, but expanding nicely.
Dad switched radio stations, trying to cheer her up. A staccato hip-hop rhythm boomed through the speakers. “Don’t be. Doc Thorpe has overseen thousands of vaccinations, and never had a problem. Not once. A few folks faint when they see the needle, but . . .” He winked into the rearview mirror. Smiling. This was Dad’s idea of a joke.
“You’re not funny,” Kendra said.
“Don’t look so sour. It’s not a big deal. We’re lucky to get this shot. I didn’t want to scare you, but there’s a study . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, I heard about that,” Kendra said. “In school, Mr. Kaplan had told us that 125,000 people might have died
from the new flu in Asia and Europe. But it’s not happening here. Pizza, burgers, and fries might be saving our butts.” Kendra herself looked too much like a typical Disney Channel Sassy Black Teenager for her own comfort: short, cute, chipmunk cheeks, perfect teeth, and eyes as bright as stars.
“I think Burger King is responsible for those rumors,” Mom said. “I wouldn’t trust Mayor McCheese if I were you.”
“That’s McDonald’s,” Kendra said. Her mother was practically a vegan, and Dad’s cooking skills topped out at pan-fried SPAM, so mealtime was an adventure.
Kendra gave up on her pleas, settling for the view as the car crossed the Interstate Bridge into Portland over the Columbia River. Portland wasn’t L.A. even in its dreams, but it was cute, like a huge small town. Dad switched off the radio so they could hear the quiet. One thing the Pacific Northwest had over L.A. was raw beauty. All Kendra remembered of grasslands and mountains in L.A. was shades of thirsty brown.
“It still rains too much,” Kendra said to her window.
“Got that right,” Dad said. “The state flower is mildew.”
“But it makes everything look so alive,” Mom said. “Remember spring?”
The last thing we talked about on the way to Portland was how pretty it is in springtime, Kendra would write in her journal later. Spring was just another season in the world’s long list of wonders I was foolish enough to take for granted.
IF YOU HAVE FLU SYMPTOMS, PLEASE PROTECT OTHER PATIENTS BY WEARING A MASK. The sign was waiting inside the hospital’s electric double doors, beside a cardboard dispenser half full of blue paper face masks. Mom quickly whipped out three masks like they were tissues and passed them around.
“But we’re not sick,” Kendra said.
“That’s right,” Mom said. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“Haven’t you heard that hospitals are the perfect place to get sick?” Dad said. As if Portland General had been her idea. “If you ever hear the word ‘iatrogenic,’ you know you’ve been screwed.” Kendra hadn’t been to an emergency room since she was four, and she didn’t watch hospital shows, so she had no real knowledge as to how crowded and depressing ERs could be. It was a den of the unfortunate, people who were coughing, dazed, or bleeding. There were at least twenty people waiting, enough to fill all but four molded plastic seats.
While Dad checked them in at the front desk, Mom and Kendra found two chairs together in a corner of the waiting room, leaving Dad to fend for himself. To Kendra’s right, an old man was nodding to sleep, a glistening snail trail dribbling from one corner of his mouth; on her left, a five-year-old boy with a homemade bandage around his head whined softly to his mother. As soon as Kendra sat down, the kid coughed up a mouthful of vomit. Some of the buttermilky glop splattered the tip of Kendra’s sneaker. She stared at the orangish flecks, horrified.
“Are you kidding me?” Kendra whispered to her mom after the kid’s mother apologized, rushing her son off to the bathroom.
“Adjust,” Mom said. “Sometimes little kids have tummy trouble.”
Yeah, big kids too, Kendra thought, her throat pinching tight. Except for the dozing old man, everyone nearby stood up to move away from the stench, giving up their seats. Despite the smell, by the time the cleaning crew arrived, newcomers had swarmed the empty seats. Kendra swore she would never visit a hospital again.
When Dad joined them, he motioned them in close for a huddle, checking to make sure no one was listening. “Twenty
minutes max—maybe thirty. Then we’re in.” He sounded like they were planning a bank heist. Kendra felt sorry for the patients who really needed doctors.
Kendra hadn’t noticed the mounted television set playing overhead until someone turned up the volume, and suddenly all eyes were on the screen. Los Angeles—LIVE, it said. On TV, a street full of shoppers and Armani-clad executive types were screaming and running.
There was some kind of commotion on a street lined with palm trees and Mercedes SUVs. People fleeing. A car was on fire in the middle of a street lined with boutique windows. Kendra’s heart slammed her chest. She knew that street!
“Oh my goodness!” Mom said, alarmed. “That’s Rodeo Drive, Dev. Around the corner from your first office!”
On TV, a man swung a full-size naked mannequin like a baseball bat, slamming it into the face of a silver-haired lady clad only in a nightgown, who’d been running barefoot on his heels. The old lady flew backward like a roller skater hitting a clothesline, her legs splayed in a Y. The entire ER gasped in unison.
“We got out just in time!” Dad said. “See? Rat City. When urban areas get overcrowded—”
“That ain’t it!” A voice spoke up. The old man, at last, was awake. He smeared drool from his chin and pushed himself to his feet, leaning on the chair. “My brother’s down in a little flea of a town outside El Dorado, Arkansas. Said the same thing happened there yesterday—a nurse went batshit, biting people. Next day, folks who got bit lost their minds, trying to bite too. Says they locked ’em all up in the jail and kept it quiet. But you don’t think the government knows?”
If not for what was on TV, the old man would have sounded like a nut job.
On TV, Kendra watched a woman in a nightshirt sink her teeth
into the bare forearm of a beefy jogger as he sprinted past her. She held on, teeth clenched tight, even as he yelled and tried to fling her away. The woman hung on like a pit bull, her bright red hair flying back and forth as the jogger struggled to shake her off.
Then it looked like the video camera fell over—or the man carrying it did. With one voice, the ER gasped again. All those who could rose to their feet. The TV screen went black, then returned to the newsroom. The blond Anchor Barbie looked shaken, her lips working without producing words.
“I need to call Willie,” Dad said, reaching for his cell phone. Uncle Willie was Bill Brookings, Dad’s younger brother, a television producer who lived in Bel Air, minutes from Beverly Hills. He and Aunt Janine had two kids, including Kendra’s favorite cousin, Jovana. Kendra saw her father’s hand trembling—something she’d never seen before—and felt her first shiver of terror.
Mom was shaking her head. “Mass hysteria? Look at them, Dev. What kind of delusion is this?”
The next scream wasn’t from the TV. A piercing sound, midway between human and some kind of jungle cat, came from beyond the waiting room, beyond the nurses’ station—past the double doors marked EMERGENCY PERSONNEL ONLY. Someone on the other side of the doors was in a lot of pain. Dying, perhaps. A slow, hard death.
“The damned circuits are busy,” Dad said, the only voice in the room. He was so preoccupied that he probably thought the scream was on TV.
All eyes turned from the TV to the double doors at the emergency room entrance. The three nurses at the station put away their charts and phones, staring with the rest of them. What are we waiting for? Kendra wondered, holding tightly to her mother’s arm. When the main lobby doors slid open, the rest of them found a reason to scream.
Considering the commotion behind the nurses’ desk, Kendra might have ignored the gentle mechanical whooshing of the lobby doors on the opposite end as they opened and closed, opened and closed. But Kendra couldn’t ignore the sturdy, sixtyish woman standing in the doors’ path as they swatted her on the back and then opened again. Open, closed. Open, closed. The woman stood in a wide stance as if she didn’t feel the doors trying to push her inside, her wispy, snow-colored hair splayed across her face as she stared at everyone staring at her. She swayed right to left in an odd counterrhythm that looked like a dance with the doors.
She was barefoot, dressed in blue silk polka-dotted pajama bottoms and a too-big lumberjack shirt that was halfway unbuttoned. Since she wasn’t wearing a bra, the open V across her chest showed far too much of her sagging, freckled bosom.
The woman’s eyes were mostly hidden beneath swaths of her hair, but a glimpse was enough to turn Kendra’s skin to gooseflesh: The woman’s eyes were red-black, a color that wasn’t human. Her lips parted to display blood-slimed teeth. Someone was yelling outside, and Kendra made out a guy in a business suit crawling across the driveway’s asphalt. The portrait of the woman in the doorway and the yuppie on the ground collided in a way that slowed everything down to syrupy slow motion.
When Kendra blinked, the woman was lurching inside.
One man in the waiting room, himself as big as a lumberjack, jumped to his feet as if she looked like she needed rescuing. “Ma’am?” he said. “Are you all right?” He reached for her elbow, ready to guide her to rest and safety.
The room seemed to vanish, shrouded somewhere in the memory of the woman’s teeth, the businessman crawling outside, and the still unidentified screams from inside the ER. When Kendra’s eyes focused again, the Amazon’s teeth were clamped into the meat of her rescuer’s hand. He howled, trying to shake her off. But the Amazon wouldn’t let go, even after he lost his chivalry and pushed against her with all his might, a hard thud sounding as they both fell against the wall beside the doors.
A yard to the right and they might have broken through the glass door, but Kendra didn’t think the woman’s teeth would have budged even if they had.
“Get this bitch off me!” The man’s eyes rolled back as he screamed.
Several people ran toward them at once. The Amazon let go of the first man to bite the ear of the old man with the brother in Arkansas. Kendra closed her eyes when she saw more blood in the tangle of arms and legs. Closing her eyes didn’t keep her from drowning in a soup of red and black. Was this what fainting felt like?
“Kendra, come on!” Devon Brookings barked, and she real
ized her parents were dragging her toward the door while she pulled against them with all her strength. That woman was near the door!
Kendra wasn’t thinking—her brain had shut down, body reduced to primal drives—but one glance over her shoulder in search of another way out gave her instincts a jolt. The doors to the ER burst open, emitting a frenzied stampede of doctors and nurses. Their faces told a story Kendra didn’t want to hear.
Her limbs were jelly. Her parents had to keep her upright.
“This way!” Dad said. “Hurry!”
They had just reached the doors, squeezing past the wriggling mound of confusion, when her father yelled out an epithet she had never heard from his lips or even realized he could fathom. His leg had been caught as he tried to scramble past. When he shook himself free, he was limping. “She bit me!” he said, outraged at the idea.
“Dev?” Mom said, distraught. Kendra barely heard her over the noise.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Dad said, urging them on, because they didn’t know yet how far from fine they all were; fine was a distant planet away. “It’s just my ankle.”
Ankle-biters. The term floated nonsensically into Kendra’s mind, a memento from a bygone world, as her parents helped her escape into the day’s last light.
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